A Security Chief’s View of Leadership?

Baroness Manningham-Buller was made director general of MI5 in October 2002 and served in the role until her retirement in 2007. In her view, there is no template for a successful leader and the leadership style employed by one individual need not be adopted by his or her successor.

“I never set out to be a leader, but simply to do a job that I found rewarding,” she told her audience. Baroness Manningham-Buller was initially reluctant to take on the role of MI5 chief, but the magnitude of the September 11 terrorist attacks changed her mind. This was despite the fact that perhaps more than any other organisation, the failures of a security service are very public but its successes are quickly forgotten – indeed, very often not appreciated at all by the general public.

At the time of 9/11, MI5 was a “relatively small” organisation, employing around 1,800 personnel and was under “enormous pressure”. The job description for its chief was revised in 2002 and Baroness Manningham-Buller recalled that the job interview process included a three hour session with a psychologist.

She was able to secure a doubling of MI5’s budget, but it was also agreed that the organisation would accomplish five time as much as previously. “The government wasn’t able to advise me on how we should expand, so I went to the private sector for advice,” she recalled.

“I was also advised not to instigate too much change at a time when there was great pressure on the organisation,” she added. “But a time of crisis is probably the very best time for change to be introduced.”

During her tenure, MI5 was able to thwart a series of potentially deadly terrorist attacks. Most notable was Operation Overt in summer 2006, when terrorists plotted to make the fifth anniversary of 9/11 by detonating liquid bombs on transatlantic planes. The resulting death toll could easily have exceeded 9/11 and a successful attack could have been interpreted as a UK assault on the US.

MI5’s ‘big failure’ over the same period was its inability to prevent the July 7 2005 bombings of London’s transport system during the rush hour, which resulted in 52 fatalities.

Baroness Manningham-Buller expressed sympathy with France’s security forces, who were immediately criticised for not preventing the terrorism attack on the Paris-based satirical magazine
‘Charlie Hebdo’
in January this year. “We’re not superhuman and inevitably we make mistakes,” she admitted, with security forces having to deploy limited resources as they see fit to cope with multiple threats.

Leadership Qualities

Looking after your people is one vital element of good leadership, said Baroness Manningham-Buller. The ‘soft’ elements, such as thanking personnel and making time for individuals who have suffered illness or bereavement are vital.

“Go on learning, as the minute you think that you know it all, you’ve had it!” she recommended. “it’s also important not to take yourself too seriously – if you do, your staff certainly won’t.”

Above all, maintain a sense of humour at all times. “When you’re dealing with matters of life and death, you have to take any opportunity for laughter that presents itself.”


Related reading