What the FBI taught me about being an effective leader
A view from Debbie Klein

What the FBI taught me about being an effective leader

I’ve just come back from the eight-week Advanced Management Programme at Harvard Business School, and I’ve never worked so hard in my life.

Fourteen hours a day plus school on a Saturday – intense, but inspiring and wonderful to be with other people who are hungry to learn and be intellectually refreshed.

Don’t let the intensity put you off; I would recommend it to anyone who gets the opportunity, particularly those who want to explore the curious phenomenon of leadership.

Let’s start with the role of the leader – to give luck a chance. But it’s more than that. It’s about creating followership. How do you do that? It’s a common belief that, to be a good leader, you have to be charismatic and larger than life. What became clear is that inspiration alone is not sufficient to be a great leader – it’s more complex and subtle than that. Our professors and guest speakers (which included many chief executives and the director of the FBI, Robert Mueller) gave some really useful insights.

First of all, it’s all about asking the right questions. Most mistakes are made because we are finding the right answers to the wrong questions. So, start asking the right questions, and use more enquiry and less advocacy.

Then make sure that others want to come on the journey with you. When you become a leader, it’s all about them, not you. Your job is to light a fire inside people, not under them. To empower your team, not exert power over them. And don’t be afraid of conflict – your job is to encourage task conflict but minimise relationship conflict.

Learn to be an aggressive listener. Be transparent about people’s performance as well as their potential (I love the phrase "feedback on the run is better than none"). Make sure that no matter how senior you become, people at all levels feel comfortable enough to tell you the truth. Leaders are quite good at making decisions, but they are not mind-readers.

So far, so good. But the test of a true leader is in times of turmoil. As Mueller said: "Never waste a good crisis." In a crisis, step up and lead – leaders change gear at this point and it’s about giving confidence to everyone that, together, you can solve it.

And finally, be good at making choices. The magnificent desire to be good at everything will produce exhausted mediocrity. In order to be good at one thing, you may need to be bad at other things. Then just go and do it – great ex­ecution of a mediocre strategy will beat mediocre execution of a great strategy every time.

You don’t want to have to learn that the hard way. 

Debbie Klein is the chief executive of Engine UK