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The Saboteur

I was listening to one of my favorite podcasts, eloquently titled “Jocko Podcast,” and hosted by Jocko Willink, where he began discussing the concept of sabotage. The thought originated from sifting through the Simple Sabotage Field Manual published in 1944 by the former Office of Strategic Services during World War II, where saboteurs were provided guidelines and techniques for disrupting critical infrastructure in enemy territory. The documents have since been declassified and are available for public consumption.

The Office of Strategic Services operated as a government intelligence and counterintelligence agency from 1942 until 1945, when it was then dissolved into several subgroups. One of these groups eventually became known as the Central Intelligence Agency (C.I.A.), which lives on today (hopefully stronger than ever!).

The field manual includes many different variables of life vulnerable to pretty simple sabotage tactics, including organizational sabotage. These saboteurs would be charged with significantly disrupting the operation of influential companies based in enemy territory. The talking point appealed to me as Jocko hit on several issues we can apply to a few different aspects of life.


Jocko and guests J.P. Dinell and Echo Charles point out that to recruit saboteurs, they first must become motivated. These prospects needed to understand how they benefit - simple truths like “Don’t you enjoy freedom?” appeal far less to the ordinary person than most think.

Visionary leaders particularly understand how important it is to apply a vision to a team environment. If the saboteurs do not understand how they benefit, there will be little intrinsic motivation. In fact, any feigned motivation will feel forced. Yes, employees should care about profit and the well-being of the company, but human nature tells us we value motives such as our family, relationships, and personal lives. Either assuming or telling individuals to care is simply not enough.

Think about it. Many workers will be content with their current status quo even if there is room for improvement. Their productivity may even be admissible, so why change anything? Weak value propositions, such as shareholders benefiting from increased productivity, could drive these potential leaders in the other direction.

The leader has to paint the picture of how they would personally benefit. For example, a ramp worker might not comprehend how their duty of on-loading and off-loading baggage plays into the big picture.

By speaking with the individual, the manager can hit on facts such as:
  • Off-loading and on-loading bags promptly keep costs low for us and our customers.

  • This, in turn, keeps our line efficiency and thus costs even lower for customers.

  • More customers mean more flights and more personnel to work for these flights.

  • Who can step up as leader of this productivity to manage these new teams of employees? You.

Further, these “saboteurs” like to feel they are part of something bigger than themselves. This is easier to accomplish during times of war, particularly World War II, when this field manual was first developed. The recruited saboteurs want to feel included and responsible for achieving objectives.


How to sabotage travel infrastructure. Civilians were still using trains at the time.

This topic I generally included for amusement. Imagine this in current-day aviation.

  • Make train travel as inconvenient as possible for enemy personnel.

  • Make mistakes in the train ticket, leaving portions of the journey uncovered by the ticket book.

  • Issue two tickets for the same seat to create a compelling argument.

  • Near train time, instead of issuing printed tickets, write them out slowly by hand, prolonging the process until the train nearly leaves the station.

  • On station bulletin boards announcing arrivals and departures, see that false and misleading information is given about trains bound for enemy destinations.

  • On trains bound for enemy destinations, attendants should make life as uncomfortable as possible for passengers, seeing that the food is particularly bad or non-existent.

  • Take up tickets after midnight. Call all station stops as loudly as possible during the night, handling baggage as loudly as possible.

  • See that the luggage of enemy personnel is mislaid or unloaded at the wrong station. Switch address labels on enemy baggage.

  • Engineers should see that the train runs slow and makes unscheduled stops.

General Interference with Organizations and Production

How to sabotage a business or a team
  • Insist on doing everything through channels.

  • Never permit shortcuts to be taken to expedite decisions.

  • Make speeches. Talk as frequently as possible and at great lengths. Illustrate your points with long anecdotes and accounts of personal experiences.

  • When possible, refer all matters to committees for further study and consideration. Attempt to make the committees as large as possible, never less than five.

  • Bring up irrelevant issues as frequently as possible.

  • Haggle over precise wordings of communications, minutes, and resolutions.

  • Refer back to matters decided upon at the last meeting and attempt to reopen the question of the advisability of the decision.

  • Advocate “caution,” be “reasonable,” and urge your fellow conferences also to be “reasonable.” Avoid haste which might result in embarrassment or difficulties later on.

  • Be worried about the propriety of any decision. Raise whether any such action is contemplated, lies within the jurisdiction of a group, or whether the policy might conflict with a policy within a higher echelon.

  • Demand written orders.

  • “Misunderstand” orders. Ask endless questions or engage in infinite correspondence in response to such demands. Quibble over them when you can.

  • Do everything possible to delay the delivery of orders.

  • Don’t order new working materials until your current stock has been virtually exhausted so that the slightest delay in your order will need a shutdown.

  • Order high-quality materials which are hard to find or get. If you don’t get them, argue about it. Warn that inferior materials will lead to subpar work.

  • When assigning work assignments, always give the unimportant jobs first so that the critical tasks are given to inefficient workers.

  • Insist on perfect work in relatively unimportant products. Send back for refinishing those with the slightest flaw, and approve products with the most flaws.

  • Make mistakes in routing so that materials get sent to the wrong plant.

  • When training new workers, give incomplete or misleading instructions.

  • To lower morale, and with it production, be pleasant to inefficient workers. Give them undeserved promotions yet discriminate against efficient workers and complain unjustly about their work.

  • Hold conferences when there is more critical work to be done. Hey, let’s have a meeting!

  • Numerous paperwork in implausible ways to start duplicate files or reports.

  • Multiply the procedures and clearances involved in issuing instructions. See that three people have to approve everything that one will do.

Office Workers
  • Make mistakes in quantities of materials when you are copying orders. Confuse simple names, use wrong addresses, prolong correspondence with public bureaus, and misfile essential documents.

  • When making carbon copies, make too few ensuring another copy job must be done.

  • Tell important callers “the boss is busy” or on another telephone. Hold up until the following mail collection.

  • Spread rumors that sound like “inside dope.”

  • Work slowly.

  • Consider ways to increase the number of movements necessary for your job - use a light hammer when a heavy hammer will suffice.

  • Contrive as many interruptions to your work as you can.

  • When changing the material you are working on, take needless time.

  • When going to the lavatory, spend a longer time than is necessary.

  • Forget tools, so you have to go out and return for them.

  • Even if you understand the language, pretend not to understand the instructions.

  • Do poorly and blame it on inadequate tools, machinery, or equipment. Claim that these insufficient tools are preventing you from doing your job right.

  • Never pass on your skill or experience to a new or less-skillful worker.

  • Snarl up administration in any possible way.

  • If possible, organize a group for presenting employee problems to the management. See that the procedures adopted are as inconvenient as possible for management and hard to adopt, requiring multiple meetings for each grievance.

General Devices for Lowering Morale and Creating Confusion
  • Give lengthy and incomprehensible explanations when questioned.

  • Report imaginary spies or danger to the Gestapo or police.

  • Act stupid.

  • Be as irritable and quarrelsome as possible without getting yourself into trouble.

  • Misunderstand all sorts of regulations concerning such matters as rationing and transportation, amongst other issues.

  • In public, treat the enemy coldly.

  • Stop all conversations when the enemy enters.

  • Cry and sob on every occasion, especially when confronted by authority.

I’m not sure about you, but I was indeed able to diagnose some principles mentioned above that I see almost daily. Think about it - this is essentially the C.I.A.’s guide to disrupting potent organizations. I have seen the effects of bureaucracy and micromanagement first-hand, and both are incorporated above. That makes it particularly alarming that the government acknowledges approaches such as incessantly implementing a “chain of command” as ineffective and ongoing meetings as counterproductive for the business and morale.


The other point is that it is equally important to assure we are not the saboteur, particularly to ourselves. No one is perfect, and often we fall victim to our sabotage efforts. Echo Charles spoke more in-depth on the most common forms of self-sabotage, identifying two specific principles:

  1. You get distracted by a short-term payoff of pleasure or relief where a short-term gain sabotages a long-term gain. For example, you eat a cookie to feel good in a moment that tapers relatively quickly and distracts from your overall health goal.

  2. You succumb to the pressure of a long-term goal. A promotion, for example, that you have had your eyes on for some time and thought you were prepared for but at the moment feel differently (“I don’t think I can handle it”). So, in the interview, you do what you can to avoid the new-found responsibility.

It should be noted that these two types of self-sabotage can intertwine. Echo uses, for example, someone going for a big interview with a significant promotion. The pressure becomes tangible, so to cope the interviewee may partake in short-term pleasure by drinking the night before.

Another way we sabotage ourselves in an all-too-common way is adverse habits, such as leaving our phones by our side while working on essential tasks. We know it is a harmful distraction, yet introduce it to the situation anyways. I am surely guilty of this from time to time , but why is it such a compulsion? It’s the power of short-term pleasure.

We all have some form of self-sabotage conduct, whether we realize it or not. Most of these habituations carry on unbeknownst to our conscience and are being reinforced daily. For example, a simple way I self-sabotage by giving in to short-term pleasures is my dependence on coffee. What was a once-weekly occurrence is now a daily ritual, almost always encompassing multiple cups each day.

To right the ship, we must first recognize this self-sabotage occurring and enforce discipline to address the root cause. Discipline is always easier said than done, but no significant life changes can happen without it. Life has no easy buttons, as much as we would like to believe it. That is how it is supposed to be - for this reason, many people who undergo weight loss surgeries usually put the weight back on rather quickly. We are not meant to cheat life.

Concluding Thoughts

Sabotage is everywhere. It has played a crucial role in history and is not going away. Human nature always compels us to act in our best interest, even if we cross the ethical line. Look around, not just in your professional life but also your personal life, and analyze. Are you surrounding yourself with the right people? Or are you the saboteur? It is always critical to stay introspective, constantly evaluating and mitigating threats.

How can we construct our daily routine to prevent and defend ourselves from sabotage? The most effective method that we control is to stay thorough in our patterns. Make your bed, maintain your diet, and keep exercising. If we don't let complacency in, we will never stray too far from our path, saving more energy to minimize external sabotage.

We cannot control others, and some people are more predisposed to disruption than others. Remain attuned to your environment, and avoid any temptation to engage in subversive behavior. There is hardly ever a situation outside of wartime to justify sabotage of any kind, and if we are not careful it will destroy trust and affect our ability to form relationships.

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