Leadership lessons from MI5 | ACCA Global
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After five years countering terrorist plots as the head of MI5, Eliza Manningham-Buller had plenty of experience to draw on for her advice to ACCA members on leadership

This article was first published in the May 2011 UK edition of Accounting and Business magazine

‘Call me Eliza,’ says the former head of MI5. Baroness Manningham-Buller isn’t one to stand on ceremony. She’s plain-speaking, formidable and visibly cringes at platitudes about her 33-year career in Britain’s Security Service, which spanned the Cold War, Lockerbie, 9/11 and 7/7. When speaking to a group of members at ACCA headquarters about leadership in challenging times, she asked for her glowing introduction to be toned down. ‘How do you know if any of that is really true?’ she asked. Perhaps a view one might expect from a former intelligence expert.

But it is also typical of Baroness Manningham-Buller’s irreverence. She says it’s essential for leaders to have a sense of fun or it ‘all gets too stressful’. She’s not interested in promoting her legacy as MI5’s former director-general and refuses to give interviews about her past, or write her memoirs. Instead, she prefers to spend her time as a cross-bench peer and governor of the Wellcome Trust. She says her staff and political bosses are the ones who are best placed to comment on whether she was a good leader or to judge if she had a successful career. ‘History will tell you if you’ve been a good leader,’ she adds.

It’s perhaps a surprise, given her background and the nature of some of her work, that the recurring themes in her speech are ‘valuing people’ and ‘family life’. ‘How you treat your people is so important,’ she says. ‘People are your greatest assets – I genuinely believe that. It’s important to give praise and thanks. People don’t just come to work for a fair salary and bonus. They’re motivated by doing a good job and that needs to be recognised.’ She warns that concern and warmth towards people can’t be faked. If it is, ‘people see right through you and never take you seriously’.

Despite her penchant for direct speaking, as she describes it, Baroness Manningham-Buller is no fake. She’s genuinely warm and has a healthy sense of humour. She also values family life and is guarded when discussing her own. She urges leaders to see the importance that family plays in people’s lives and says that during challenging times ‘you often have to stop people working and send them home’. ‘Family is more important than work. If there’s a drama or a crisis, then afterwards you have to thank them and keep these things in proportion.’

She describes her own leadership style as open and consultative and says she rarely makes major decisions on her own. She believes that good leaders should foster a culture where they can be challenged and where staff aren’t afraid to voice their opinions. ‘It’s important not to quash dissent,’ she says. ‘You have to value critics. The most depressing leaders are those who behave as if they have all the answers – people won’t come forward.’

She expresses sympathy with fellow public servants ‘operating in tight economic environments’ and warns that it is easy to become cynical under such conditions. ‘You have to be careful because it can be quite corrosive. I’m keen on finding humour in all situations. Without that, stress levels rise and you wouldn’t want to go to work.’ She also advises ignoring media criticism, which can drive you ‘mad’. ‘You’re in the spotlight for a short time, and if you’re worrying about that you won’t be doing the job.’

Strength from within

The baroness says that in challenging situations, chiefs have to recognise the ‘deficits in their resources’ and work out how to play to their own strengths to manage the situation. This goes back to her theme of valuing people. She says it’s a mistake for leaders to treat everyone the same. ‘People need different things from leaders. Some people need to be left alone, while others need encouragement. You need to work that out.’

She says that when you are trying to transform an organisation or improve its performance, you have to harness everyone, encouraging them all to contribute ideas. ‘People at the bottom of the heap often have a much clearer vision and better ideas on how to be more efficient.’

She urges leaders to get to know staff at every level. ‘How often have you been in a lift with senior people and you might as well have been a fly on the wall? You have to have contact and talk to people – you learn a lot that way.’

She says the most important part of change is the internal challenge – to constantly question what organisations are doing and why. ‘You have to carry on learning,’ she says.

In some final advice for her audience, the baroness said: ‘If you think, as a leader, that you’ll get everything right, then you’re deluded and arrogant. You’ll make mistakes, so learn from them and move on.

‘Leaders can change morale, but not improve it. Rise above trivia, don’t abuse power, listen to staff and always make time to rest and reflect.’ Good advice indeed from a public servant at the helm during one of MI5’s most challenging periods.

Karen Day, journalist

Career history

  • Eliza Manningham-Buller joined the Security Service in 1974 during the Cold War.
  • In 1988 she led the investigation into the Lockerbie bombing and was later drafted to Washington during the Gulf War.
  • She returned in the early 1990s to set up MI5’s intelligence operation against the IRA after the Metropolitan Police had handed over responsibility for it.
  • She became a board member and oversaw the service’s intelligence operations, technical collection, finance and IT before becoming deputy director-general in 1997.
  • In 2002, 12 months after 9/11, she was promoted to director-general of MI5 and led the service for nearly five years.

Last updated: 9 May 2014