Many believe leaders are born, not made. Chris Inglis disagrees.

The National Security Agency’s Deputy Director explained why at the annual Federal Senior Management Conference in Cambridge, Maryland. He kicked off the event at a Sunday evening dinner reception by recounting a memory of a first meeting with about a dozen federal workers he was about to manage.

You can build a leader. I’ve seen it done with every personality type on the planet.” – Chris Inglis

“I asked them what they did … and to my horror and distress everyone said I do what you tell me to do and nothing else,” Inglis said. “They had been trained that way.”

That moment led to his development of the management and leadership model he shared with the conference attendees and a strong belief that federal agencies can foster leadership within the organization.

“Leaders can be inspired to act in that capacity and therefore can be made,” Inglis told the room of about 200 government executives. “You can build a leader. I’ve seen it done with every personality type on the planet.”

Inglis’s leadership model includes:

  • Ethos. The Greek word meaning “character” that is used to describe the guiding beliefs or ideals that characterize a community. As it pertains to federal workers, Inglis described it as “The clarion call to service. If you don’t articulate that no one else will know what it is.”
  • Governance. “You have to know what a successful organization looks like to strive to it,” he said.
  • Resources. “There are limits on our aspirations to do good things. It’s the job of a manager to find that balance,” Inglis said. “The resource we can’t afford to overlook are people. I’ve seen people with the least resources who are happiest because they are well led and well nourished in terms of intellectual capital. That’s why people stay or leave (an organization) — leadership.”

Inglis said federal workers often confuse management with leadership and believe leaders only hold high-level positions. He said one can achieve either or both, but that they are not interchangeable.

He also said leadership at all levels can transform an agency and uncover solutions to big problems. For instance, NSA has long given summer interns full clearance and some of the toughest agency problems as assignments.

“But they aren’t told that. And they solve many of them,” he said. “They don’t think of things as impossible. … Leadership is when you walk into a room and you suggest something people thought wasn’t possible and you change their minds.”

Finally, Inglis encouraged the leaders in the room to strive for and foster the following qualities:

  • Be passionate. “Believe in what you do,” the self-described introvert said. “That does not mean you have to be the life of the party.”
  • Be competent. “Know what you do and how you do it.”
  • Be authentic. “Don’t fake it. People see through that.”