Leadership in Context: Transforming the FBI in an Uncertain World | Summary and Q&A

October 13, 2009
Stanford Graduate School of Business
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Leadership in Context: Transforming the FBI in an Uncertain World

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In this video, Robert Mueller, former Director of the FBI, discusses the transformation of the FBI after the September 11th attacks. He talks about the three phases of development the Bureau went through, the importance of prioritizing and adapting resources, and the challenges of building a domestic intelligence agency. Mueller also touches on the lessons he learned about people management, information technology, delegation, execution, and the balance between national security and civil liberties.

Questions & Answers

Q: Can you share an interesting anecdote about your experience working with the President of the United States?

When I was first appointed to this job, I had the opportunity to have an interview with the President, which is not common. During that interview, my cell phone went off, which was embarrassing. However, it didn't negatively impact the interview, and I later found out it was my wife calling me. This incident reminds me of the importance of turning off cell phones during important moments.

Q: How has the FBI changed since September 11th?

The September 11th attacks forced the FBI to change its focus dramatically. Prior to the attacks, the FBI was primarily involved in investigating crimes after they occurred. However, the attacks shifted the focus to preventing such attacks from happening in the first place. This required a change in mindset, priorities, and the way investigations were conducted.

Q: How did the FBI prioritize its resources after September 11th?

After September 11th, the FBI had to prioritize its resources based on national security concerns. Counterterrorism became the top priority, followed by counterintelligence and cybercrime. On the criminal side, the FBI prioritized public corruption, civil rights abuses, and international/transnational organized crime. White collar crime and violent crime were also prioritized due to their impact on society.

Q: How did the FBI build up its intelligence capabilities after September 11th?

The FBI recognized the need to build a domestic intelligence capability and invest in technology and personnel. The Bureau hired approximately a thousand analysts and established field intelligence groups and databases. The goal was to collect and integrate intelligence from different sources to form a complete picture of potential threats. The Bureau also had to change its mindset and develop domain managers and other skillsets to better anticipate and address threats.

Q: How did the FBI balance national security and civil liberties after September 11th?

The FBI had to navigate the balance between national security and civil liberties in its efforts to prevent terrorism. Legislation like the Patriot Act and updates to FISA court requirements allowed for greater information sharing and surveillance capabilities. The FBI aimed to use these tools within the confines of the Constitution, statutes, and Attorney General guidelines to protect the country while respecting civil liberties and privacy.

Q: What are the priorities for the FBI today?

The FBI's priorities have evolved but still align with the ones established after September 11th. Counterterrorism remains a top priority, given the ongoing threats and recent cases. Other priorities include white collar crime, such as mortgage fraud and corporate fraud, and addressing violent crime. Public corruption is also a key focus, especially with the influx of federal funds from programs like TARP and the stimulus package.

Q: What challenges did the FBI face in managing people and teams during this transformation?

People management was crucial during this transformation. The FBI had to balance the need for experienced agents with a history of reactive investigations and the necessity of building a proactive and intelligence-focused culture. Changing the mindset and culture within the Bureau was challenging but necessary for success. Additionally, integrating information technology and business practices proved difficult, as it required marrying technologists with those who understood the Bureau's operations.

Q: How did the FBI address the need for delegation and execution in its operations?

Delegation and execution were critical components of FBI operations. Delegating tasks and decision-making within the organization allowed for effective execution of strategies and goals. However, some areas required hands-on involvement, especially those related to terrorism and technology. Finding the balance between delegation and personal involvement was a challenge that required careful consideration and adaptability from leaders.

Q: How important was listening to the success of the FBI's transformation?

Listening and finding effective ways to listen were crucial factors in the Bureau's transformation. Leaders needed to create opportunities for open dialogue and feedback within the organization. Understanding the concerns and perspectives of agents and staff was vital for making informed decisions and improving the Bureau's operations. Active listening helped foster a culture of collaboration and engagement.

Q: How do you see the future of law enforcement and the FBI?

Looking into the future, law enforcement agencies, including the FBI, will face challenges related to globalization. Criminals and terrorists can easily cross borders, necessitating close cooperation and information sharing between agencies and countries. The FBI will play a vital role as a bridge between state and local law enforcement and international partners. The need to balance national security and civil liberties will continue to be a priority in the ever-changing threat landscape.


Robert Mueller highlights the transformation of the FBI after September 11th and the challenges faced in building a domestic intelligence agency. Prioritization, adapting resources, and integrating technology were key aspects of this transformation. The FBI focused on counterterrorism, counterintelligence, white collar crime, and violent crime. Balancing national security with civil liberties was a complex task that required legislative changes and careful alignment with constitutional principles. Mueller also emphasizes the importance of people management, delegation, execution, and active listening in successful organizational transformation. Looking towards the future, law enforcement must address the impact of globalization on crime and terrorism while maintaining the delicate balance between security and individual rights.

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