How to Navigate Adversity with Grace and Confidence as a Leader
with Marc Polymeropolous
with guest Marc Polymeropolous #MakingBank S5E52
Experiencing failure and adversity on the road to success is ultimately what makes a stronger leader and more confident team. It’s one of the great paradoxes of success; knowing how to fail, remain humble, and nurture a dedicated team, actually sets you up to thrive in the long run. Even when the stakes are high, if you learn from your mistakes and acknowledge failure head-on, the experience will still have deep value.
Marc Polymeropoulos spent nearly three decades with the CIA serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. During his recent interview on the Making Bank podcast, he shares the powerful lessons in leadership he learned along the way. In 2019, Marc retired from the Senior Intelligence Service ranks at the CIA, after years of service leading field management assignments covering the middle east, Europe, and Eurasia. He remains one of the CIA’s most decorated field officers. His last position was overseeing the CIA’s clandestine operations in Europe and Eurasia. Marc says he “never had a dull day at the office,” and learned countless priceless lessons in leadership, humility, and teamwork.
In his new book, Clarity in Crisis: Leadership Lessons from the CIA, Marc shares his lessons in humility and facing adversity through rich storytelling, sports analogies, and bracing self-awareness. On Making Bank, he chats with Josh about some of the benefits and lessons to come from experiencing failure and learning from mistakes when the pressure’s on.
Facing Adversity is Mandatory
As a huge baseball fan, Marc draws parallels from some of his favorite sports moments to illustrate his points. Often in sports history, a team will have a record-breaking season of wins immediately following a horrible year of losses. This is one of many examples he gives to show that while experiencing failure hurts in the moment, the lessons gained are extremely valuable, and the team as a whole becomes stronger because of it.
On Making Bank, Marc shares the emotional story of when he pushed an intelligence agent too far and the spy ended up getting exposed, tortured, and executed. Marc fully blames himself and says he was too impatient, and that agent will always live with him as a powerful, raw reminder of the weight his decisions carry.
Years later, when his team found themselves in a similar position deep in high-stakes clandestine efforts in the middle east, he thought about that previous experience. He exercised extreme caution and patience, even amidst pushback from superiors and Washington D.C. They were going after a high-value target, a member of the Taliban who had killed two CIA agents. Eventually they were able to successfully take the target “off the battlefield,” and called the widow of one of the agents he’d killed to tell her justice had finally been served. Marc says, “When you have to lead in times of adversity, if you have a team that has failed and learned from it, you’re going to have so much more confidence in them.”
Experiencing difficulties and making mistakes also helps to keep you humble, and remember that you’re just one person part of a larger team, no matter your role or decision-making power.
Marc says that sometimes, with the CIA, the field officers would have a tendency to pound their chests and “talk about how great we were.” But he learned over the years that the people behind the scenes are just as important to the mission, and have absolutely vital roles they each play. He calls them “glue guys,” or “glue gals,” because they are the indispensable person behind the scenes. Marc emphasizes the importance of celebrating every single person on the team, no matter their role, because that will breed humility, trust, and gratitude across all the ranks.
The Best Teams are Teams that Have Experienced Failure
With a laugh, Marc tells Josh, “Adversity is the performance-enhancing drug to success, which means you have to fail first.” He says anytime his team would fail or come up short, he’d point to Michael Jordan who was cut from his high school basketball team in his youth.
Anyone who’s dealt with failure and has internalized those lessons, will emerge stronger than before, and is always an invaluable part of a successful team. The fact is, everyone’s going to fail. Everyone makes huge mistakes at some point. It’s how you behave after adversity that shapes you. Allow yourself to practice humility and grow through the discomfort and lessons.
Marc shares that teams that have experienced failure together, end up closer and are more trusting of one another. They know their success is dependent on the sum of every part, and that each individual piece of the puzzle is equally as important to success. The importance of deep trust between team members cannot be understated; no matter how high the stakes are, if your team unconditionally trusts each other, and trusts in you to lead them, you will ultimately succeed.