Spies & Spying Personality Profiling: Spymasters‍

From The Psychology of Spies and Spying by Adrian Furnham and John Taylor.

Spymasters lead and manage the work of intelligence operatives in a department (for example all those working on countering terrorism). They include the heads of services and also senior managers.

In most cases, Spymasters have worked in their service for many years and are experienced in a variety of operational roles. They can also be appointed from other parts of government or the political arena outside the intelligence community. Heads from many different sections may report to the boss or one of their deputies. They are the CEO, directors, and senior managers of an organization.

Daniel Craig and Judi Dench as 007 and M
James Bond (Daniel Craig) with spymaster ‘M’ (Dame Judi Dench)

Spies & Spymasters

Spymasters provide direction to staff, often deciding which are the priority tasks and targets for the service. They assess the risks and approve intelligence operations and, where necessary, seek the approval of senior ministers in the government. It follows that they need to have excellent relationships with senior members of the government, so the latter have confidence in the intelligence and security agencies and the information they produce. Spymasters must also secure the necessary funds from their government.

In some countries heads of agencies are close to the head of government; elsewhere Spymasters work on the same level as other senior members of the civil service. If they have military rank, they will be one-star to five-star generals.

The assessment of people to ensure a perfect fit

We summarize below the main skills and qualities which recruiters will look for in their assessment of potential intelligence officers. 

Intellectual horsepower

Not everyone in an organization needs to be super clever; they do however need to be ‘bright enough’. There are different kinds of intellect that are required in an intelligence service: 

  • Intellectual and cognitive capacity (IQ): an individual’s efficiency at information processing and storage. It predicts how quickly and efficiently they learn. People can be taught skills but there is not much people can do to improve their intelligence.
  • Analytical: the ability to identify relationships and patterns from information and data. 
  • Numeric or deductive ability: this relates to those posts which demand a strong mathematical or scientific approach to their work.

Personality - is about preferred ways of doing things and seeing the world. Intelligence officers cannot change their personalities but they can learn to change their behaviors. Different roles require different personality traits. Recruiters will want to assess the following:

Stability/resilience/composure - an ability to withstand stressful external stimuli without psychological hindrance. All roles involve pressure, some more than others. It is important that people do not buckle under pressure and make bad decisions.

Openness/inquisitiveness - open to experience and embrace the new and the different. They are less fazed by unusual or different places, people, or ways of doing things. Inquisitiveness is about an individual’s ability to innovate and be curious when presented with intelligence from an existing source or a new source. 

Sociability/extraversion - value social interaction and a preference to work in groups and as part of a team. Introverts value independence, preferring to work alone, or in an insular manner.

Risk-taking preferences - central to intelligence roles is the concept of risk. While all risks are thoroughly analyzed, understood, and (as much as possible) mitigated, intelligence roles require that people take risks. We split risk into two distinct parts:

  • ‘Hot’ Risk - risk where decisions have immediate (and potentially dangerous) consequences. This represents a person's willingness to engage in missions that are physically stimulating/frightening. 
  • Cold’ Risk - risk where decisions have effects that are distant and in the future. This represents a person’s willingness to make strategic decisions based on intelligence or challenge existing intelligence in favor of a different strategy. It is calculated, planned, and strategic. 

Drive/conscientiousness/work ethic - this trait assesses the level of self-motivation, organization, and drive within an individual. A conscientious person is organized, reliable, and responsible.

Integrity/honesty - an individual’s ‘moral compass’. It focuses on whether the individual is manipulative, callous, and devious or whether they have an ethical sense and moral backbone. This is one of the most important traits in the spying world, famous for its intrigues and falsehoods. It is vitally important that insiders can trust their colleagues.

Skills

Skills can be taught - people can learn to do better. Inevitably an individual’s intellect and personality tend to dictate both what skills they initially have and how efficiently they learn further or higher skills.

Interpersonal skills - the ability to cultivate and maintain relationships. Certain jobs specify a need for strong social skills, not only to gather information but also to operate with others.

Observational skills - the ability to observe and follow targets. Certain roles have a need to be aware of their surroundings.

Physical ability - some roles require more than average physical fitness.

Leadership - leadership is relevant primarily for the Spymaster and for those who have to lead groups. It needs to encompass strategic ability, ambition, and a willingness to delegate. The desirable qualities of a leader are much debated. 

Excerpt courtesy of The Psychology of Spies and Spying by Adrian Furnham and John Taylor.

Spies & Spying Personality Profiling: Spymasters‍

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From The Psychology of Spies and Spying by Adrian Furnham and John Taylor.

Spymasters lead and manage the work of intelligence operatives in a department (for example all those working on countering terrorism). They include the heads of services and also senior managers.

In most cases, Spymasters have worked in their service for many years and are experienced in a variety of operational roles. They can also be appointed from other parts of government or the political arena outside the intelligence community. Heads from many different sections may report to the boss or one of their deputies. They are the CEO, directors, and senior managers of an organization.

Daniel Craig and Judi Dench as 007 and M
James Bond (Daniel Craig) with spymaster ‘M’ (Dame Judi Dench)

Spies & Spymasters

Spymasters provide direction to staff, often deciding which are the priority tasks and targets for the service. They assess the risks and approve intelligence operations and, where necessary, seek the approval of senior ministers in the government. It follows that they need to have excellent relationships with senior members of the government, so the latter have confidence in the intelligence and security agencies and the information they produce. Spymasters must also secure the necessary funds from their government.

In some countries heads of agencies are close to the head of government; elsewhere Spymasters work on the same level as other senior members of the civil service. If they have military rank, they will be one-star to five-star generals.

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Spymasters in the intelligence world

Spymaster: Sir Mansfield Cumming
Spymaster: Sir Mansfield Cumming


Sir Mansfield Cumming

The first chief of SIS, Sir Mansfield Cumming (1859-1923), was asked to create what would become the UK’s Secret Intelligence Service on August 12, 1909. The Service has of course changed but there is still much of his legacy that remains. In Alan Judd's biography of Cumming, he wrote toward the end:

“Apart from the hallowed gimmicks, such as the use of the chiefly green ink and the letter C, as well as his title (CSS) there are inherited organizational structures and, more importantly, attitudes. Prominent among the latter are the insistence on putting work first and the easy informality of working relationships.”

Judd goes on to quote Cumming on the subject of intelligence officers:

“He should be a gentleman, and a capable one, absolutely honest with considerable tact and at the same time force of character… experience shows that any amount of brilliance or low cunning will not make up for lack of scrupulous personal honesty. In the long run, it is only the honest man who can defeat the ruffian.” 

 

   Spymaster: Baroness Eliza Manningham-Buller
  Spymaster: Baroness Eliza Manningham-Buller

 

Baroness Eliza Manningham-Buller

Eliza Manningham-Buller (Director General of MI5, 2002-2007) spoke about leadership and identified seven key attributes:

  • Be Visible - Lead by example and try to demonstrate best practice. 
  • Establish a Sustainable Routine - You and your team need to be able to make good decisions and exhaustion can prohibit that process. Establishing a sustainable and healthy routine can generate a higher level of competence.
  • Avoid Arrogance - Don’t take yourself too seriously otherwise people won’t take you seriously. 
  • Encourage Dissenting Voices - To really interrogate decisions you need to hear differing viewpoints, so critical thinking is crucial. 
  • Keep Learning - Encourage a culture of learning in order to progress as an organization. 
  • Ease Concerns - Reassure your team that we have to live with uncertainty and ambiguity when making decisions. 
  • Admit Things Often Fail - Admit that point and you can manage expectations, mitigate consequences, and maintain morale. 

(Manningham-Buller in an address on December 4, 2020)

 

FBI Spymaster: J. Edgar Hoover
FBI Spymaster: J. Edgar Hoover 


John Edgar Hoover, Director FBI

J. Edgar Hoover was a giant in the intelligence and security worlds in the 20th century. He was appointed Director of the FBI in 1924 and remained in office until his death in 1972 at the age of 77. He is credited with building the FBI into an effective crime-fighting agency and instituting modernizations to police technology.

Biographer Kenneth D. Ackerman summarizes Hoover's legacy thus:

“For better or worse, he built the FBI into a modern, national organization stressing professionalism and scientific crime-fighting. For most of his life, Americans considered him a hero. He made the G-man brand so popular that, at its height, it was harder to become an FBI agent than to be accepted into an Ivy League college.” 

Hoover did, however, become a controversial figure as his secretive abuses of power began to surface. He amassed a great deal of power and used the information he had to intimidate and threaten others. (Cox, Stuart et al 1988)


Stella Rimington ex-MI5 spymaster
Former MI5 Spymaster Stella Rimington


Spies & Spymasters: Psychological profile notes

There are several key attributes of this job. The Spymaster is essentially a leader who must select and motivate a team. The team needs to trust the leader who has the analytic ability to understand important issues but also to understand team dynamics. They need to be inspirational and to model honesty and integrity.

Spymasters must take critical decisions with possibly many risks and dangers.

They need to weigh up information and have the courage of their convictions. They need to be able to relate to and convince their masters (usually very senior politicians) as well as their staff. They need socio-emotional and political skills. They need to be highly emotionally aware and able to manage both their own and others’ emotions.

Because of the wide range of people that they have to deal with, they need to have high-level social skills. They also need to be politically and strategically aware. Most are highly educated, very well-informed, and totally inscrutable.

Three essentials for a Spymaster:

Three essentials for a Spymaster chart


There are biographies and many comments on the internet about Spymasters. Among the most prominent are Mansfield Cumming (the original ‘C’ head of SIS), Dame Stella Rimington, J. Edgar Hoover, George Tenet, Yuri Andropov, Vladimir Putin, and Sir Maurice Oldfield.

Alec Guinness as George Smiley

Spies & Spymasters in fiction

In fiction, James Bond’s boss ‘M’, brilliantly portrayed by Judi Dench, showed admirable toughness as a Spymaster, but was equally concerned when she thought Bond might be dead. George Smiley became ‘Control’ in John le Carré's later novels. He had some strategic vision but was always constrained by the counterintelligence problems he had to solve.

James Earl Jones as Admiral James Greer 
James Earl Jones as Admiral James Greer 

Admiral James Greer was Jack Ryan’s boss in Tom Clancy’s early novels. We met him first in The Hunt for Red October (1984) where he guided and reassured Ryan through the political sensitivities of dealing with the White House and moving from an analyst to a handler.

Excerpt courtesy of The Psychology of Spies and Spying by Adrian Furnham and John Taylor.

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The assessment of people to ensure a perfect fit

We summarize below the main skills and qualities which recruiters will look for in their assessment of potential intelligence officers. 

Intellectual horsepower

Not everyone in an organization needs to be super clever; they do however need to be ‘bright enough’. There are different kinds of intellect that are required in an intelligence service: 

  • Intellectual and cognitive capacity (IQ): an individual’s efficiency at information processing and storage. It predicts how quickly and efficiently they learn. People can be taught skills but there is not much people can do to improve their intelligence.
  • Analytical: the ability to identify relationships and patterns from information and data. 
  • Numeric or deductive ability: this relates to those posts which demand a strong mathematical or scientific approach to their work.

Personality - is about preferred ways of doing things and seeing the world. Intelligence officers cannot change their personalities but they can learn to change their behaviors. Different roles require different personality traits. Recruiters will want to assess the following:

Stability/resilience/composure - an ability to withstand stressful external stimuli without psychological hindrance. All roles involve pressure, some more than others. It is important that people do not buckle under pressure and make bad decisions.

Openness/inquisitiveness - open to experience and embrace the new and the different. They are less fazed by unusual or different places, people, or ways of doing things. Inquisitiveness is about an individual’s ability to innovate and be curious when presented with intelligence from an existing source or a new source. 

Sociability/extraversion - value social interaction and a preference to work in groups and as part of a team. Introverts value independence, preferring to work alone, or in an insular manner.

Risk-taking preferences - central to intelligence roles is the concept of risk. While all risks are thoroughly analyzed, understood, and (as much as possible) mitigated, intelligence roles require that people take risks. We split risk into two distinct parts:

  • ‘Hot’ Risk - risk where decisions have immediate (and potentially dangerous) consequences. This represents a person's willingness to engage in missions that are physically stimulating/frightening. 
  • Cold’ Risk - risk where decisions have effects that are distant and in the future. This represents a person’s willingness to make strategic decisions based on intelligence or challenge existing intelligence in favor of a different strategy. It is calculated, planned, and strategic. 

Drive/conscientiousness/work ethic - this trait assesses the level of self-motivation, organization, and drive within an individual. A conscientious person is organized, reliable, and responsible.

Integrity/honesty - an individual’s ‘moral compass’. It focuses on whether the individual is manipulative, callous, and devious or whether they have an ethical sense and moral backbone. This is one of the most important traits in the spying world, famous for its intrigues and falsehoods. It is vitally important that insiders can trust their colleagues.

Skills

Skills can be taught - people can learn to do better. Inevitably an individual’s intellect and personality tend to dictate both what skills they initially have and how efficiently they learn further or higher skills.

Interpersonal skills - the ability to cultivate and maintain relationships. Certain jobs specify a need for strong social skills, not only to gather information but also to operate with others.

Observational skills - the ability to observe and follow targets. Certain roles have a need to be aware of their surroundings.

Physical ability - some roles require more than average physical fitness.

Leadership - leadership is relevant primarily for the Spymaster and for those who have to lead groups. It needs to encompass strategic ability, ambition, and a willingness to delegate. The desirable qualities of a leader are much debated. 

Excerpt courtesy of The Psychology of Spies and Spying by Adrian Furnham and John Taylor.
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