The Secret Service and V.A. – Cautionary Tales of Workplace Cultures



“If you want to transform an organization, it’s not about changing systems and processes so much as it’s about changing the hearts and minds of people.”  –Pamela Weiss, Executive Coach

The recent resignation of Secret Service Director Julia Pierson after a series of events that put President Obama and his family at risk will likely satisfy many in the political and media establishments. Like the Department of Veterans’ Affairs (VA) scandal earlier in the year, there is a shelf-life for these kinds of stories when the difficult work remains undone.

In an understatement, the Washington Post’s follow-up article to former Director Pierson’s testimony in front of the bipartisan House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, writer Joe Davidson mused,

“Perhaps Pierson doesn’t realize that poor workplace cultures and morale can hurt operations and undermine procedures in any agency.”

We recall the VA scheme to cook the appointment books to make it appear that the Department was meeting its 14-day goal of having patients seen quickly. Like the Secret Service, a culture of leadership distrust led to practices that were primarily focused on self-preservation rather than customer service.


The Same Tired Solutions

A 2013 report from the Inspector General’s office regarding the Secret Service’s “Efforts to Identify, Mitigate and Address Instances of Misconduct and Inappropriate Behavior” itemized fourteen recommendations in response to the Cartagena prostitution scandal that rocked the Service the year before.

A summary of those recommendations doesn’t sound much different than what many Human Resources departments face when trying to improve behaviors within their organizations:

  • Enhance the policies related to reporting and investigating misconduct;
  • Strengthen procedures for proposing and issuing discipline;
  • Ensure compliance with disciplinary regulations; and
  • Ensure discipline is aligned with disciplinary principles.



Does enhancing policies and procedures and strengthening compliance with them change behaviors in organizations or do the real solutions require deeper digging?

Government agencies can be uniquely dysfunctional because they don’t have competitors for their business. Years of poor practices and outdated expectations become ingrained and, as a result, the behaviors used to skirt the rules have as well.


Uncle Sam is Not Our Role Model

Correctly or not, government leaders are often seen as political appointees whose promotions are rewards for tenure. However, like too many business leaders, the vetting process (no pun intended) is often incomplete. More so than private business, governmental leaders must know how to build a culture that values trust and transparency as well as accountability.

The use of fear and intimidation as processes of motivation merely breeds a culture of distrust and lead to employees covering up errors and putting the organization at risk. Of course, it’s particularly glaring when it’s the leader of the free world who’s at risk.

The V.A. and the Secret Service (and probably other agencies whose similar cultures who have simply not been exposed yet) need to practically start over. It will take years to (re)build trust within those groups but shortcuts will only lead to future failures, perhaps more catastrophic.


Mindful Solutions

Mindful leadership starts with how an organization performs its due diligence on its potential hires and continues with ongoing training that focuses on how individual roles are tied to the organization.

That’s particularly important in the government sector where things like global security and respect for those in uniform are included in the overarching goals (as opposed to profit and loss).

It also holds leaders accountable for both the performance of their teams and their behaviors. Finally, mindful leadership provides individuals with tools to help cope with stressors faced by workers, regardless of industry:

  • Managing our own anger and that of others;
  • Staying focused on the task at hand and not be distracted by other concerns;
  • Embracing change in the organization as a positive indicator of growth and improvement; 
  • Cultivating all five components of emotional intelligence, especially self-awareness and self-regulation;
  • Learning how to become more patient with ourselves and others in order to build trust;
  • Demonstrating empathy and vulnerability so that others perceive you as someone with whom they can confide; and
  • Providing adequate financial and human resources so that everyone can be held accountable without excuse.
For comprehensive training modules on leadership development topics such as this, please visit our Solutions page.

Our society has devolved into one bent on quick fixes and instant solutions.

The real work in all organizations involves people, not processes and there aren’t overnight overhauls. The Secret Service and VA scandals remind us that, in some cases, actual lives depend on understanding and acting on that simple but oftentimes overlooked fact.


Mindful Follow-Up Questions

  1. As you consider the culture in your organization, do you have any hesitancy in feeling like you can advance performance or behavioral concerns through appropriate channels or beyond if necessary?
  2. How do you emulate mindful leadership skills in the presence of customers, direct reports, peers and supervisors?
  3. Is there peer pressure within your organization to hide mistakes even when they are detrimental to the goals of the business? 
  4. What are some leadership examples of “We’ve always done it that way” that need to be addressed quickly in order to avert problems in your organization now and down the road?
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