Philip Mudd: An interview by Bob Morris

MuddPhilip Mudd, the ex-deputy director of the CIA’s Counterterrorist Center and FBI’s National Security Branch, appears regularly on Fox News, CNN, and NPR. He is the current director of enterprise risk at SouthernSun asset management in Memphis, Tennessee.

His book, The HEAD Game: High-Efficiency Analytic Decision Making and the Art of Solving Complex Problems Quickly, was published by Liveright (April 2015).

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Morris: First, who has had the greatest impact on your professional development?

Mudd: Watching people and experiencing events. I witnessed great leadership and poor leadership, and as I matured, I realized that there were learning lessons from both categories of people. For example, I watched former CIA Deputy Director John McLaughlin show remarkable patience and moderation even in the most stressful moments. The lesson was simple: it doesn’t matter how stressful the times are, the choice of whether to buckle under the stress is yours.

Events taught me how the lessons that you can only learn through mistakes. Lack of humility was always key: when you’re dealing with inherently complicated problems about events in the future, never assume you have all the answers. If you are too confident in the decisions you’ve taken, you will make a mistake. Never assume that what happened yesterday gives you much of a picture about what will happen tomorrow.

Morris: Years ago, was there a turning point (if not an epiphany) that set you on the career course you continue to follow? Please explain.

Mudd: Many of the turning points in my career were accidental. In the early 1990s, I told my office at the CIA that I wanted to take a year off and move to Paris. It seemed an odd choice for a junior officer. But the office agreed. When I returned, the managers in my office didn’t know where to place me — I suspect they thought I’d never return — but they had to fill a position in what was then regarded as a backwater: the CIA’s Counterterrorist Center. When younger professionals ask how to map their careers, my life experiences, like that career shift, have led me to tell them that they can’t map everything, nor should they try. They can, though, take advantage of any opportunity they have, to maximize the chance that they’ll succeed regardless of what twists and turns they experience. Curveballs are inevitable in life, and at work. You can’t avoid them; you better learn how to hit them. Most people can’t handle change. A few profit from it.

Morris: To what extent has your formal education been invaluable to what you have accomplished in life thus far?

Mudd: You could look at this question and assume that most responders would reflect on a college and graduate school career to determine how those experiences shaped later life. For me, I often reflect on what I learned earlier, in grade school, and how critical those lessons proved to be. The nuns who taught me forced all of us to diagram sentences, day in and day out, for years. They forced us to learn Warriner’s English Grammar. They corrected our grammar every day, and they required us to write, all the time. Writing is a critical form of communication, and they gave me the basic tools to write effectively. I will never forget. I hated those classes. But they turned out to be among the most important classes I ever took.

Morris: From which non– business book have you learned the most valuable lessons about business? Please explain.

Mudd: By far the most influential book I’ve read is Thinking, Fast and Slow, by Daniel Kahneman. The book exposed many biases or flaws in thinking that I had been aware of but had never heard explained so clearly. I also found myself learning about biases or flaws that I wasn’t even aware of. Simply a fascinating book that makes sense of what goes on in your brain when you think you’re assessing a problem analytically. It turns out, as you’ll find out in the Kahneman book, that your brain plays a lot more tricks on you than you think.

Morris: I am curious to know your response to this observation by Peter Drucker, “There is surely nothing quite so useless as doing with great efficiency what should not be done at all.”

Mudd: I’ve found this to be true so many times that I’ve lost track. The worst part of knowing this is that I was a victim of useless efficiency for much of my early career. Here’s an example: You write, read, or hear a brilliant summation of the current state of some terrorist group. The data is high-quality. The presentation is first-rate. The analysis is a highly efficient characterization of an adversary.

But…The first question any analyst should ask is not how to capture everything he knows about a subject. The first question is harder: What actions is he trying to influence, and what kind of analysis can he write to help a decision maker take more efficient, effective action? Good analysis isn’t how to better understand every detail about a terror group, in other words, it’s how to identify vulnerabilities or opportunities that are exploitable. In retrospect, a lot of what I studied and wrote about should not have been done at all. I should have focused less on what I knew and more on what a decision maker would need to take more efficient action. Do you want to understand al-Qa’ida’s finances? Or do you want to understand how your knowledge of those finances can help a decision maker develop policies and operations to disrupt those finances?

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Phil cordially invites you to check out the resources at these websites:

Amazon reviews of The Head Game link

Steven Colbert interview link

Link to Meredith Blake’s article in Los Angeles Times about Steven Colbert interview

PBS interview link

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