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  • Writer's picturetony

Do Give Credit Where Credit is Due

There’s a quote you sometimes see in a collection of inspirational sayings or on a workplace plaque, and it goes something like:

A man may do an immense deal of good, if he does not care who gets the credit for it.

Many people know a variation that was associated with Ronald Reagan.

There is no limit to what a man can do or where he can go if he doesn’t mind who gets the credit.

I appreciate the noble intent here, which might even be true in a specific case. But this always struck me as a limited, short-term way of thinking. In leadership jobs, I cared a great deal about who got credit for good work. In fact, I think it’s a fundamental responsibility of leadership.

Tony the Hopeless Optimist would love to believe that good people doing the right work to advance the goals of an organization will undoubtedly be recognized and advance in their careers. Tony the Battle-Hardened Bureaucrat knows better. In any complex bureaucracy or large organization, a leadership job requires that you understand, work within, and also re-shape “the system.” The system can be opaque, ugly, competitive, and inefficient. The right thing doesn’t just happen on its own.

I was lucky enough to spend my NSA career serving a great mission and working in a great organization. I think that naturally gave me a long-term view of the health of the institution. It also gave me a long-term view of the many people I worked with and often had management responsibility for.

Here’s a story to illustrate a long-term view (and which will eventually come back to the topic of “credit”).

Early in my technical career, I was happy just doing exciting work and learning new things. Led by some fantastic people, a small group of us were pioneering work for the defensive mission at NSA: building security systems on commercial hardware and software; performing the earliest software vulnerability analysis, and; analyzing the security of complex embedded systems at the hardware/software boundary.

It was slow going at first. We were young and stumbling along learning new technology, but also struggling to figure out just what we should be doing. Then, for some reason, a senior technical person from the NSA SIGINT mission started dropping by to visit. Dennis P was very well known across the Agency for amazing mission accomplishments. He was very generous with his time and ideas, and I greatly appreciated his help. At some point, I realized he was also “talking us up” around the Agency, as in “…those guys in COMSEC are doing some good work…”. He might have been exaggerating a bit (or a LOT), but his word (credit) gave us credibility and opened doors for internal partnerships and recruiting.

One meeting with him took an unexpected turn. My friend Don S and I were talking with Dennis on some technical topics. At some point, Dennis drifted into a different conversation – about the health of the overall technical workforce Agency-wide. He went up to the whiteboard (it might have been a chalkboard back then), and he started drawing curves showing the numbers of technical people hired in various fields over the last years. Then, excitedly, he described the ups-and-downs in the numbers, the general leadership paths for technical people, his concerns about specific generational cohorts of people, and what we collectively needed to do to prepare them for future leadership.

This was a real eye-opener for young me. Dennis was a legendary technical uber-geek, and here he was worried about “management stuff.” Instead, I saw a technical expert who cared about the mission, the long-term health of the institution that served it, and the development of the people who execute that mission – today and tomorrow. He considered it part of his responsibility to take appropriate action beyond his mission accomplishments. And I realized that his visits to help us were part of his action plan.

As I moved into management jobs, the memory of that conversation helped shape the way I approached my role in the organization.

A responsible leader actively creates opportunities for success by assigning and guiding work in a way that gets the mission done, while providing room for personal growth. Making sure that people get credit for good work is an essential part of working the system that rewards, encourages, and celebrates. And that credit is also part of a longer-term development program to get people into the right jobs that will serve the mission, now and in the future.

Giving credit where earned and appropriate plays another vital role. It’s hard to fool the workforce – they usually know who is doing great work. Giving earned credit – clearly and publicly – gives people confidence in the “system .” Conversely, nothing degrades workforce confidence faster than seeing the “wrong” people get or take credit.

This became apparent when I was on Agency-level Promotion Boards or Awards Boards. After the results were announced, inevitably a trusted friend or two would approach me in the hall with a variation on one of two themes: 1) “What were you idiots thinking, how could you not promote __________!”; or 2) “What were you idiots thinking, how could you promote _______!”.

The first I call a Type I Error (I know, I’m abusing math lingo). That’s a recoverable error. If the person is worthy, a little feedback, mentoring, and paperwork polish usually get the right thing to happen next time. But the Type II Error is devastating – it can’t be undone and it undermines confidence in the process. But it happens. In a large organization, there could be hundreds or thousands of nominations or files to review. It’s impossible for Board members to have personal knowledge of every project, and every person. Sorting out fact from creative writing was a nightmare.

Finally, giving credit where it’s due is just the right thing to do. The human, considerate, kind thing to do.

And so I really do care who gets credit for great work.




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