What the FBI taught me about leadership

One of the great benefits of being a student of leadership is that there are so many resources. Hundreds of books and articles saturate the “digital-verse.” An indication of just how complex the topic can be; coupled with the breadth and depth of relevant contributing perspectives. In my experience there is no better way to learn to be a leader than to witness great leadership. A point of gratitude for the many outstanding, yet profoundly different, leaders with whom I was exposed to in my years with the FBI. It was from them that I developed my own management roadmap and the Four C’s of Leadership: courage, confidence, conviction, and courtesy.

1. Courage is the conscious decision to overcome fear, make and own tough decisions, remain transparent, and stomach potential failure. It is essential to leading a team from the valley of mediocrity to the peak of success. Of the four C’s, courage is the most contagious, particularly noticeable when your FBI SWAT team is stacked eight-deep on the front door of a violent gang house prior to the execution of a warrant. In those moments you look into the eyes of your brothers (and sisters) and realize courage begets courage, while the absence of it can spread just as seamlessly. Making ethical decisions, driving innovation, challenging the status-quo, and maintaining poise in the face of ardent critics are all core to the FBI’s investigative process and are unattainable without courage. All too often corporate cultures are destroyed by the cowardice of passive-aggressive leadership, whereby management dishonestly manipulates its audience and withholds their true intentions.

2. The greatest leaders with whom I engaged in the FBI had confidence in their craft, confidence in themselves, confidence in their subordinates, and their subordinates had confidence in them. This was a quality most often acquired over years of conducting successful interrogations and, among other things, overcoming adversarial cross-examinations in court. Having the authority to investigate crimes that could result in someone’s freedom being taken from them is an enormous responsibility that demands contributions from ethical people operating at the highest level. Thus, in my experience confident leaders in the FBI intentionally surrounded themselves with the most qualified talent and never publicly or privately minimized or quashed those who were deemed intellectual or professional threats. Confident leaders, in general, celebrate the victories and expertise of others, they empower, build people up, create an environment for a healthy exchange of ideas, allow themselves to be wrong and are able to admit it, and do not self promote. Anybody who feels the need to repeatedly convince others of their credibility through “I” stories (“I did this…” “I did that…”) either lack the qualifications to be taken seriously or suffer significant insecurities.

3. The most common quality found across the whole of the FBI was conviction; a true commitment to the mission. One of my FBI mentors once told me, “we are a slow moving machine, but we are a machine.” In other words, we are focused, driven, and don’t stop until we prove or disprove whatever allegation being investigated. There was never any doubt about what success looked like in the FBI because the leadership lifted the fog of ambiguity from the pathway to success. Conviction in who we are, what we do, and for whom we serve is what blows clear the haze and brings purpose and clarity to the day-to-day. A clear understanding of the mission at the leadership level should cascade down to the rest of the team, satisfying a fundamental need to simply understand one’s true value-add.

4. A courteous disposition is one that conveys respect, emotional maturity, humility, and flexibility. Courtesy is the manifestation of an authentic belief in the value of the human person. FBI Agents are taught to engage people of all types and backgrounds with respect. Not surprisingly, treating murderers and corrupt politicians with dignity and respect makes treating people in the private sector with dignity and respect quite easy. Being courteous demands leaders reach beyond the workplace and facilitate a healthy work-life balance for those within one’s charge. It ensures the great leaders provide an environment for the team to thrive, both professionally and personally. It is courtesy that takes leadership development of the team seriously; it’s courtesy that leads to the patience necessary for effective coaching; it’s courtesy that drives a leader to put time into providing sincere mentorship; and it’s courtesy that holds people accountable and provides honest and critical feedback.

The FBI has suffered in recent years from an influx of poor leadership, but in my experience, the problem did not nearly extend to the whole of the Agency. Some of the greatest people for whom I’ve ever worked and ever had the pleasure of leading and serving beside, were the men and women of the FBI. I suspect I will forever remain a student of leadership (since you never fully arrive), but as time passes and I continue to adjust my personal management roadmap, four things will always remain high on my aspirational list of leadership qualities: courage, confidence, conviction, and courtesy.