Pick Up Your Own Brass

For years I, like many people, have been fascinated with the FBI. So I was excited to sit down and read Pick Up Your Own Brass and learn more about the leadership qualities of the people at the head of one of the world’s most respected law enforcement agencies, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI).

With real-life FBI stories as the backdrop, McChesney and Gavin offer 50 leadership lessons throughout the book, listed for easy reference at the end of each section. Easily transferable to anyone’s career aspirations, these lessons from the FBI reveal the qualities and character traits necessary to be a leader in any given situation.

So if you are in search of ways to improve your leadership skills or are in the middle of figuring out what traits you need to cultivate in your own career, then give this a read. If not for the fascinating telling of stories from the mysterious world of the FBI, which I thoroughly enjoyed, than for the enormous wealth of knowledge and insight from these two distinguished special agents.

The Big Idea

The Big Idea: The biggest takeaway from the book

The Humble Leader

"A good leader always picks up his or her own brass."
- Pick Up Your Own Brass, Preface, page xii

Since 1934, FBI agents have carried guns. With this responsibility comes regular training and testing sessions where agents, to ensure they are qualified to carry a firearm, fire hundreds of rounds of bullets. With hundreds of rounds of bullets comes hundreds of casings that are manually or automatically ejected from the firearm.

In FBI terms, a good leader does not expect someone else to pick up these casings, they are willing to bend down and pick them up themselves. The authors share this lesson in a unique story about a senior executive who showed his leadership qualities one day at a firearms training session.

The visiting FBI executive surprised several of the students when he humbly took his place in line, and when he was finished shooting, promptly bent down and picked up his own ejected brass casings. Now he did not have to do this, he had people around him who would have stepped in and picked them up. But by doing so and showing his true character, this FBI executive earned the respect and admiration of those in attendance that day.

As the authors illustrate with this story, the need, as a leader, to demonstrate authentic behaviour is a universal one. It does not matter whether you are CEO of a corporation or President of a NGO, if you act in your truest nature and show authenticity and humility, your ability to lead will resonate with those you serve.

Insight #1

An actionable way to implement the Big Idea into your life

The Root of (Nearly) Every Problem

"Ineffective communication is the root of many interpersonal and organizational problems."
- Pick Up Your Own Brass, page 96

As a professional in the field, near and dear to my heart is the art of effective communication. So I was thrilled to come upon the section so aptly named, “The Root of (Nearly) Every Problem” that tackles the idea that ineffective communication is the root of many interpersonal and organizational problems.

The ability to clearly convey a message to a specific audience is more challenging than most people appreciate. We have all seen an example of this, whether it’s a Tweet gone bad or a press conference that quickly disintegrates into an ambush. Whatever the circumstance it is always prudent to pay attention to everything you say, especially when you are in a position of leadership.

With this in mind, McChesney and Gavin share real stories of how quickly a misplaced comment or uninformed remark can affect not just an FBI agent but the entire organization.

One of their colleagues, ‘Geoff’, (recently promoted to a new leadership position) stood in his first meeting with a group of senior and junior agents and gave (what he felt was) an inspiring speech. Unbeknownst to him, his message of loyalty and commitment was received very differently by the senior agents than by the junior ones. While the senior agents saw his words as a message of commitment, the junior agents felt he demonstrated a lack of ambition and was already marking his days to retirement.

This discrepancy was not mentioned until several months later, when a kind and thoughtful former mentor brought up some of the comments that had come back to FBI Headquarters. Of course when he heard, ‘Geoff’ was stunned, he had no idea his words had left such entirely different impressions among his employees.

My favourite line was, when ‘Geoff’ asked what he could do to correct the situation. His former mentor replied, “that’s easy, go back and tell ‘em what you thought you told ‘em.”

A cool and humbling lesson for us all, that what we say is only half the message, it is also what is heard. So the next time you go to make a speech at a meeting or just send a text, consider thoughtfully who will be listening, it just might change your message.

Insight #2

An actionable way to implement the Big Idea into your life

Find the Best Talent

"Select individuals of courage, integrity, and commitment to lead your organization."
- Pick Up Your Own Brass, page 7

In the FBI, most of its leaders are selected from within, groomed and promoted through the ranks in a rigorous process that selects agents and other professional employees who are perfectly suited to the job at hand.

This is highly evident in the first pages of Pick Up Your Own Brass, as McChesney and Gavin recount the story of Sheila Horan – a twenty-two year FBI veteran and leader of the FBI’s National Security Division in the Washington, D.C. field office – and her actions in the hours and days following news reports of two deadly bombings in East Africa.

As the special agent in charge (or SAC), Sheila Horan, had spent many years overseeing foreign counterintelligence cases. To the point she was involved in nearly all the FBI’s most sensitive counterintelligence and counterterrorism cases. So it was no surprise that when looking for the right person to send to East Africa to begin the investigation into the bombings, Sheila was at the top of the list. And quick to take on this assignment, seven hours and four inoculations later Sheila was on a plane to Nairobi.

With this story the authors illustrate that unlike those better suited to boardrooms and conference calls, leaders of the Bureau must demonstrate a serious commitment to flexibility and a readiness to jump in, or fly off, at a moment’s notice into situations that may be life threatening. I am not sure I would be able to hold up under such intense pressure, would you?

Now these circumstances are not common among most organizations, but it is something interesting to consider. What character traits must you cultivate to push you forward in your career, to become the leader you aspire to be?

Because of what the FBI is required to do as a law enforcement agency, it selects individuals with courage, integrity, and commitment to lead their organization. If you are unsure what traits you need to be a leader, then pay close attention to the 50 lessons offered up by McChesney and Gavin; I’ll bet the answers are there.

So no matter where you are on your career path, an aspiring leader or an established one, do yourself a favour and pick up Pick Up Your Own Brass by Kathleen McChesney and William Gavin. You won’t be disappointed.

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Karen Windsor

ABOUT Karen Windsor

At WINDSORCommunications, Karen Windsor helps people and organizations plan and write their authentic story. A writer, strategist and creative thinker, Karen’s success is in helping clients determine what their authentic goals are for the organization, then bringing them brilliantly to life in all facets of their communication...
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