When leading elite cyber operators, there are some things you should do – and some things you should never.  Here are some of the basics of cyber leadership.

What Makes a Cyber Genius?

Nearly immediately when I started interacting with our Nation’s elite cyber geniuses, I became transfixed with a concern that they are so very rare and therefore too hard to develop for scaled skill production  (BTW, I’m still concerned about that). I started developing a profile of an operator with the hope that if we can identify a nexus of entry level skills or interests, we can recruit likely candidates into our ranks.

Contrary to my entering assumptions, the most interesting intermediate conclusion I reached was that I couldn’t guess their background or entering interests based on the job they currently hold. Some of these folks were in the military, some were civilians, some were strong academically in high school, some weren’t, some had STEM degrees. Some tinkered at home with networking technologies, some wanted nothing to do with it after walking out our doors.

I thought that I could write a recipe for recruiting more geniuses into our ranks, but after interviewing them, I learned that the ingredients themselves are less important than how you bake this caliber of talent.

These operators are unlike anything I’d ever encountered on a ship or in the aforementioned quality education. Which, incidentally, solidified in my mind that college education is far from the most important quality in estimating another person’s intelligence or ability to contribute. There is no overestimation of these operators— they are true geniuses. But very few of them possess a STEM degree. What’s that tell you??

In the Cyber War, a college education is not the most important quality when estimating intelligence or ability to contribute.

The Do’s and Don’ts of Cyber Leadership

I realized that an easier task than breaking down their molecular makeup, in fact, was writing a recipe for how to lead these geniuses. In no specific order, here’s an easy do and don’t list to keep our geniuses happy (you’re welcome):


  • Unencumber them from administrivia
  • Learn the basics of their trade so they don’t have to explain everything over and over again
  • Arrange policy and technology fundamentals for their operations to be successful
  • Align operational financial requirements so those are not a concern
  • Promote meritocratically, and an anti-hierarchical (for the sake of hierarchy) culture
  • Take seriously their complaints about technology— no matter how advanced you think it is
  • Create communication avenues for the population where anonymous and attributed feedback can proliferate
  • Provide vision and direction
  • Move mountains to enable their preferred working environment
  • Have a bias for action, and err on the side of “YES” to our operators


  • Bore them with tasks someone else could do (don’t bore them ever)
  • Lie or exaggerate about what you’re doing on their behalf
  • Take a year to do something that should take a month— they can see you
  • Whitewash responses to their concerns
  • Take credit for their hard work
  • Limit the set of possible outcomes for conducting operations— their imaginations are stronger than yours
  • Ascribe the same promotion criteria to every workrole. Promotions are aimed at retention. “Promotion criteria” for operators should be entirely different than HR and managers (duh!)
  • Interrupt them when they’re deep in thought
  • Bog them down with excessive meetings
  • Dismiss modern technical training when it doesn’t fit the historic mold

Stay tuned for profiles of the specific geniuses I’m talking about. And let me know if this do/don’t list works for you!

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