In the heart of DIA Headquarters, there is a spacious hallway adorned with stoic portraits of every past DIA director. The paintings are meant to pique the interest of passersby, offering just a small glimpse into the character and legacy of each man. The portraits also showcase what the Agency’s leadership has looked like over the past 60 years. And in that sea of white faces, one man stands out.
Retired Lt. Gen. Vincent Stewart.
In January 2015, Stewart became DIA’s 20th director. During his tenure, the Agency established the Office of the Deputy Director for Commonwealth Integration, initiated planning for the DIA Museum, and pivoted away from counterterrorism to focus on broad-spectrum threats from near-peer competitors. With an eye on strengthening workforce wellness, Stewart also established Agency fitness centers and worship centers.
Stewart also holds the distinction of being DIA’s first Black director, and DIA’s first director from the U.S. Marine Corps.
“I am so tired of being the first,” said Stewart, a sad smile playing across his face. “There’s a tremendous pressure to be the first and set the standard. You want to be successful, because you don’t want to be the last for a long time. But there are also a whole host of folks who want you to fail. There were some who prayed for me, and some who preyed on me.”
Today, Stewart is more acutely aware of the historical weight that rested on his shoulders while serving as DIA director. He understands the importance of representation and what it means when a Black employee stops at his portrait in the hallway celebrating DIA directors.
“I once encountered an individual who was really excited that my picture was on the wall, because I looked like them,” said Stewart. “The pressure of being the one on the wall is probably more pronounced now than when I was there.”
Strategic competition and the fight for information dominance
In the last decade, DIA has embarked on an era of strategic competition to combat existential threats to the United States. This focus, a pivot from years of counterterrorism efforts, began under Stewart’s leadership.
“It was clear to me that the long-term existential threats and desires to change the global construct came from China, Russia, North Korea and Iran,” said Stewart. “Those, to me, posed the most existential threat to the United States and our way of life. I’m thrilled that we’re talking about that now and anticipating those capabilities.”
In terms of its growth and commitment, Stewart believes China poses the greatest long-term threat to the United States.
“China has a grand design that is global in nature,” said Stewart. “If China is the dominant world power, it impacts our economy, the global community, the balance in military power and the potential for conflict globally.”
To drive home his point, Stewart pointed out that China has 1.4 billion citizens — significantly more than the United States’ 330 million citizens. If China lost one million people in combat, it would not have a significant impact on the nation. But if the United States lost a million citizens? The loss of life would be catastrophic.
Addressing the looming threat of Russia, Stewart noted that Russia sees itself as the supreme sovereign power in Europe and views the United States as a competitor and adversary.
“What worries me about Russia is the idea that Vladimir Putin would think it’s okay to invade Ukraine,” said Stewart. “He may have convinced himself that NATO expanse is a threat, but what comes next? Putin has now made it clear how important NATO is.”
During his time as DIA director, Stewart often spoke about fifth-generation warfare — or cognitive warfare. Although most think of warfare in terms of platforms that deliver kinetic abilities, Stewart believes that the next generation of warfare is the battle for information. As an example, he pointed to the current crisis between Russia and Ukraine.
“During the height of the Cold War, the information we gathered was not shared in a transparent way, so we could use diplomacy to change behavior,” said Stewart. “What we’re doing now is sharing what we know about Russian forces, and we’re doing that to battle misinformation. We’re sharing more openly now, so our policymakers and diplomats can go to the global community and show what Russia is doing.”
By providing transparent information to the general public, Stewart notes that the United States is fighting for information dominance. Releasing accurate information to the public quickly allows the international community to use the information to drive diplomacy so that warfighting becomes the less likely outcome.
“For the last couple decades, the instrument of power was military power,” said Stewart. “We’re seeing a shift now, where the instrument of power is informational and diplomatic, and where military power is the punctuation of that power.”
Creating a people-focused culture
Stewart is fondly remembered as a people-focused director. It was common to see him eating lunch in the DIA Headquarters cafeteria or walking around engaging with the workforce.
“I’ve never known any mission that could be accomplished without people,” said Stewart. “We’re a people-centric society. We all operate at a different emotional level, but you won’t understand that if you never interact with people.”
One of Stewart’s biggest challenges at DIA was defining a culture for a diverse workforce located around the world. For Stewart, workplace culture is inexorably tied to storytelling — it tells the story of a workplace’s values, history and provides a roadmap for the future.
“Here’s the challenge of culture at DIA,” said Stewart. “You have all the military services that bring their history to the culture. You have the culture of the collector vs. the analyst vs. mission support. You have this amalgamation of culture in the Agency — and you have to pull all those pieces together and find the core values to rally the workforce together.”
One way that Stewart tackled changing DIA culture was through the creation of the Office of the Deputy Director for Commonwealth Integration.
“All too often, we put caveats on the things we produce that don’t allow us to share with our partners,” said Stewart. “How do you change the mindset and show that we are an organization built for coalition warfighting? How do you build an organization for our Five Eyes partners so you can produce intelligence that is relatively easy to share with our partners?”
With the DDCI, Stewart wanted the Agency to focus more broadly on building coalitions and sharing information. In particular, he wanted to get away from a culture of not approving information for release to foreign entities.
But, as Stewart noted, some change takes longer than others.
Facing challenges head-on
Stewart was born in Kingston, Jamaica, and lived there until the age of 13. He credits his Jamaican upbringing as crucial to his growth from childhood to adulthood. Although not unique to Jamaica, the lessons that were instilled on him are ones that he carries to this day.
“Be prepared, work hard, and don’t own the credit for success,” said Stewart, voicing the lessons that helped develop his leadership style. “Surround yourself with quality people, empower them and recognize them for what they contribute to an organization.”
After obtaining his bachelor’s degree in history from Western Illinois University in 1981, Stewart hungered for a role that would push him and offer him the opportunity to make a real difference.
That desire led him straight to the U.S. Marine Corps.
“I was challenged every single day,” said Stewart. “Being part of something bigger appealed to me. I signed with the intent of serving three or four years — and 38 years later, here I am.”
In his capacity as director, Stewart aimed to strengthen the reputation of DIA in the Intelligence Community. His choices were driven by a fundamental desire to make common-sense updates to the Agency’s way of life that would instill a sense of pride and culture among the workforce. The Agency’s motto, “committed to excellence in defense of the Nation,” makes it clear: There’s no room for mediocrity.
As Stewart’s own legacy shows, perhaps the best way to leave a lasting impact is simply to focus on the greater good, rather than the individual.
“When I was the director, people always asked me about my legacy — and I never thought about it much,” said Stewart. “I did the right things because they were right, not because it was good for a legacy.”