A former FBI director’s valuable advice

A former FBI director’s valuable advice
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The FBI historically has been a mission-driven organization with a high opinion of its abilities, pride in its history, and high expectations of its agents.

What on earth is going on? A director is fired. A deputy director is fired. A longtime, previously well-regarded agent is caught sending thousands of text and email messages on government property to an FBI attorney with whom he is having an extramarital affair, and the messages reveal intense malice toward a presidential candidate. He gets demoted — and later, fired. Is anybody in charge?

Former federal judge and FBI Director William Webster, who enjoyed a sterling reputation for integrity, authored a recent piece for the New York Times, “I Led the FBI. Mueller is Just Doing His Job,” but his focus was to support special counsel Robert MuellerRobert (Bob) MuellerWhy a special counsel is guaranteed if Biden chooses Yates, Cuomo or Jones as AG Barr taps attorney investigating Russia probe origins as special counsel CNN's Toobin warns McCabe is in 'perilous condition' with emboldened Trump MORE and the collective Intelligence Community.  


He did not offer his perspective on how the FBI got to the state it’s in — and it’s not just the FBI. The nation’s papers provide a daily soap opera. Among the latest scandals is the investigation of accusations of sexual misconduct against Les Moonves, the CEO of CBS. What about the behavior of John Schnatter, founder of Papa John’s, who resigned as CEO after using a racial slur in a conference call? More recently, a just-released report by a Pennsylvania grand jury details seven decades of child abuse allegations against hundreds of Roman Catholic priests and a church hierarchy reluctant to act.

Judge Webster once delivered to me one of the best pieces of advice about management and leadership. I wish he had added it to his Times piece, but I’ll share it. In 1980, I was selected as a White House Fellow and assigned to Judge Webster. I was the only non-lawyer among his special assistants and one of only two women. (Anne Dellinger, wife of the solicitor general, and I were hired at the same time. Judge Webster much later acknowledged that he hired us both thinking one of us would actually show up.)

When Judge Webster became Director Webster, appointed to the FBI in 1978 by President Jimmy Carter, he picked up his chambers and law clerks, moved to Washington, D.C., and converted the staff to special assistants to whom he gave liaison and project responsibilities.

My project assignments were interesting and varied: Review the popular FBI tour. Examine the director’s speaking schedule. Compare the bureau’s directives to the field offices about dealing with media over past decades. Orchestrate the 1981 dedication of a new building for the Forensic Science Research and Training Center at Quantico, Virginia.

Director Webster was in his third year at the FBI when I got there, and all the divisions had established relationships. The only department left was the Identification Division, which nobody wanted. It was a great time, actually, because they were beginning to migrate from 95 million paper files to this new process — automation. Not knowing much about fingerprints or automation, I went to the director and asked him for guidance about my job description. 

“Use good judgment,” he said. Perhaps a little more explanation, I asked. “Your job is to make sure I hear things that people think I don’t want to hear, or that they don’t want me to hear,” he said.

Very quickly, it became clear what he meant. One assignment was to update the tour route. Despite the claim that it was the second most popular tour in D.C., it didn’t include any pictures of women. Another assignment: Solicit speaking engagements from key groups. Despite the protestation that the bureau got 100 invitations a week, most were from bar and sheriff’s associations. We needed to expand that to include business groups, minorities and women’s groups.

Yet another assignment: Help the agency and its director become more transparent. Director Webster carried around a card that was updated weekly with the number of women agents and agents from minority populations. The bureau at the time had about 7,800 agents, fewer than 100 of them female or minorities. “We can’t police the Chinese mafia in San Francisco with a bunch of guys from Iowa,” was his explanation. My first week, I got the card. Great news! We were making progress, I reported. “Go check again,” the director said. I checked again, and again; we looked good. “Check again,” he urged. By this time, you can guess what I found: The numbers may not have been cooked, but they certainly were more than slightly heated.

Director Webster’s guidance would have been very useful to the immediate past leadership of the FBI, and to those currently entrusted with some of its most sensitive investigations. His words should be a mandatory pledge for C-suites and corporate boards — for that matter, anyone interested in leadership. So, one more time, the nuts and bolts of his management: A leader’s job is to set up a system where he or she hears things that people think they don’t want to hear, or that they don’t want them to hear.

We should all listen up.

Merrie Spaeth, a Dallas communications consultant, was President Reagan’s director of media relations. Follow her on Twitter @SpaethCom.