How a declassified manual from 1944 unveils the secrets of abysmal leadership.

by Matteo Scanni


Acts of sabotage have surprising longevity. From an etymological point of view, the word derives from ‘sabots’, the heavy, wooden shoes that French, textile factory workers used to wear in the early nineteenth century. ‘Saboter’; in this sense, means ‘to walk noisily’. The first material sabotage acts date back to the Industrial Revolution, when the English Luddites, exasperated by their harsh economic conditions and by their falling wages, destroyed sixty textile machines at a factory in Nottingham. It was 11 March 1811, and shortly thereafter England was rocked by a wave of violence.

During World War II, in the United States, the Luddites movement became a subversive strategy to slow down production in factories and offices, as well as in the Allies’ logistics centers. In 1944, the CIA Office of Strategic Services (OSS) secretly circulated a short book titled Simple Sabotage Field Manual, an enlightening read for anyone who wants to understand how the modern concept of leadership developed. Some of its instructions are pretty old-fashioned and boring, but a chapter titled Organizations and Conferences outlines the profile of the ‘worst possible leader’, who is busy throwing sand in the gears rather than increasing his company’s revenues.

 In brief, here’s what the “worst possible leader” should do:

  • Never permit short-cuts to be taken in order to expedite decisions.
  • Make “speeches.” Talk as frequently as possible and at great length. Illustrate your “points” by long anecdotes and accounts of personal experiences.
  • When possible, refer all matters to committees, for “further study and consideration”.
  • Bring up irrelevant issues as frequently as possible.
  • Refer back to matters decided upon at the last meeting and attempt to re-open the question of the advisability of that decision.
  • Advocate “caution.” Be “reasonable” and urge your fellow-conferees to be “reasonable”.

What is most surprising here is the match between the recommendations in the sabotage manual – declassified by the CIA in 2008 – and the conservative approach of many companies when faced with the numerous challenges posed by innovation (not just technological). Challenges that, in fact, require a perpetual adaptation of one’s borders, to support change. Narcissism, organizational logorrhoea, bureaucracy, an over-structuring of the processes, inertia, lack of courage, poor empathy and inclusivity, are diseases as widespread as the common cold, behaviors that threaten the evolution of work structures. One wonders what would happen if the CIA Manual were proposed to a global consultancy firm with the title “How to become a great leader”. How many decision-makers would find a confirmation of their approach to organizational management? Self-sabotage as principled leadership.