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Leadership the FBI way’

Maddie Daly | Wednesday, January 23, 2013

With a resumé boasting high-profile casework at the FBI, service at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and risk assessment at Disney, Dr. Kathleen McChesney’s career has been anything but boring.

McChesney, the third woman recruited into the FBI and former third-ranking executive, offered experiential advice on leadership in the second lecture of the Provost’s Distinguished Women’s Lecture series entitled “The Privilege to Serve: Leadership the FBI Way” on Tuesday.

McChesney said it takes a certain type of person to develop into an exceptional leader.

“Two of the most important qualities of leadership deal with people and challenges,” McChesney said. “A leader has to like people, I mean really like people, to work with them, serve them, do things for them and genuinely enjoy their company.”

However, McChesney said leaders cannot always expect the respect and friendliness to be returned.

“As a leader you’re going to make decisions that people don’t like,” McChesney said. “You want people to respect you, and if they like you that’s a bonus.”

Despite the hierarchical nature of the FBI, every member is required to be both a leader and a team player, she said.

“Everyone in the FBI is expected to be a leader at one time or another, even if you don’t have the formal title,” McChesney said. “The people we hire are mission-oriented, so it is very easy to get them to step up and volunteer for cases that might not be all that attractive.”

McChesney used two very well-known cases to highlight examples of exceptional leaders.

McChesney first referenced Special Investigator Bob Walsh’s handling of the infamous Unabomber case, when Harvard graduate Ted Kaczynski mailed bombs across the country in an increasingly sophisticated plot.

“[Walsh] was a very innovative leader. He always believed the case was going to be solved even when others didn’t,” she said. “He continued to search outside the box and look for new resources and additional sources.”

McChesney recalls being contacted by Walsh while living in Los Angeles, when he requested her assistance on the case. While she was too busy with her own cases to dedicate resources away, what Walsh did next solidified his superior sense of initiative and captured McChesney’s attention.

“Bob brought everyone to San Francisco and had a specialist come to brief us on the latest news from the case,” McChesney said. “Because he took the time to inform us and get us involved, the next time he called me for resources he got them right away.”

“In 1995, [Kaczynski] wrote a 35,000-word manifesto and sent it to the New York Times, threatening to continue mailing bombs if they failed to publish it,” McChesney said. “It was the FBI’s decision to ask the New York Times to publish it because we felt that, from a law enforcement standpoint, it was the best and smartest thing to do. It was a big risk for the Times but eventually ended the case. It was a long-term case so it was hard to maintain focus, but that’s the job of leader and that’s exactly what Bob did.”

While Walsh displayed leadership over a long period of time with his Unabomber case, the next case’s leader, Special Agent Sheila Horan, exhibited composure under pressure following the bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Kenya and Tanzania.

Horan immediately deployed over 900 agents to Africa, the largest deployment of agency personnel up to that point. McChesney said Horan’s team was quickly able to identify the bomb conspirators as four Al Qaida members. She attributed Horan’s success to her preparedness and established relationship network.

“It is very important to establish your liaison with people you think you’ll have to work with in crisis situations early on so you’ll know each other and trust each other,” McChesney said. “Sheila immediately began those relationships and was very respectful to people like the ambassador and president of Kenya.”

McChesney said Horan faced substantial challenges as not only an American, but a woman, operating on mission in the African nation.

“Sheila had to designate jobs having to do with health and safety, welfare, culture,” McChesney said. “She had to learn what things you could and could not do as a woman or foreigner in Africa, make sure everyone knew certain hand signals that would be insulting – there was a lot of training on the fly.”

Despite the stress and challenges of leadership, McChesney told the audience it was a gift she hoped many of its members would experience.

“When you find things you’re passionate about and somebody pays you to do that, that’s a great privilege, and I wish that for all of you,” she said.