Federal Coach

By Tom Fox, VP for Leadership and Innovation, Partnership for Public Service

Blog archive

Federal Coach: Michele Leonhart on leading the DEA

(Fox's Federal Coach column was originally published on The Washington Post On Leadership site.)

Michele M. Leonhart, administrator of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), has spent more than 30 years in law enforcement. As a DEA special agent, she commanded the Los Angeles Field Division, one of DEA's largest field divisions; served in San Francisco, where she became the first woman within DEA promoted to the position of special agent in charge; and initiated major drug investigations and conspiracy cases in Minneapolis and St. Louis. Leonhart began her law enforcement career as a Baltimore City Police Officer.

How do you keep more than 10,000 DEA employees motivated and engaged?

Everybody who comes to work for DEA believes in our one mission to wipe out drug abuse and the supply to our country; and to assist other countries in taking the biggest and the baddest kingpins, and the largest organizations operating, off the face of this earth. Whether it's filing paper, answering phones or serving on the front lines in Mexico or Afghanistan, every employee is in this for the same reason-making our country and our world safer. We've never had to worry about keeping employees motivated or engaged. If anything, it's making sure everybody's moving at the same pace and sharing what we're learning. We're able to move information and our workforce quickly and react overnight to emerging threats.

Communication is everything. We're in more than 200 offices and laboratories across the country and in 63 other countries. Thousands of state and local task-force offices work with us on investigations. It's important that we don't believe one piece of information, type of technology or good idea is only good for one part of the agency.

What communication vehicles are most effective?

When I became acting administrator, I thought we could do a better job of getting accurate information out quicker. Our public affairs office came up with an internal website that acts as a daily newspaper that employees see when they turn on their computers. I can immediately communicate anything that's important for our workforce to know. That has served us well, especially in emergency situations. For instance, we were able to react quickly to the tornadoes in the South, letting our employees know everybody was safe and what we needed, such as generators and supplies. On the enforcement front, we would be able to post new policies, address rumors out there or anything that was causing confusion because of lack of information.

There's teleconferencing and email, but we are a small agency and there's nothing like picking up the phone and talking to people. That's what DEA does so well. We stay connected on a daily, sometimes hourly, basis. We are ranked the highest of the federal law enforcement agencies in a human capital study and one reason, we think, is our open-door policies with managers and supervisors and great ways to communicate within the agency.

Are there things you do at DEA that have a disproportionate impact?

It's important that families that have lost loved ones over the years hear from me every year so they know that even 60 or 70 years later the DEA cares about them. We found an agent that had been killed on a drug deal back in 1928. It's making sure we remember those who have lost their lives in the line of duty. We gather the families once a year at our memorial service and it's almost like having a family reunion.

What lessons have you learned from previous positions?

I thought as you go up the ladder your management style needs to be tweaked a bit and that things change. They really don't. As a group supervisor in San Diego, I led 12 agents the same way I led the Los Angeles field division, one of DEA's largest divisions; and I lead DEA the same way I led in San Diego. In transitioning from acting director to DEA administrator, it was a challenge learning that within the Beltway you have to deal with politics. As a career employee you don't. But in general, leadership is about the little things-staying close and listening to your people. It's being the role model and walking the talk. You don't have all the answers and the more you ask questions and the more people you bring to the table, the better the result.

Being a Baltimore city police officer was an experience. In a patrol car, you have to assess the situation quickly and be confident that the decision you make is right. You learn to use your gut. It's the same thing leading an agency. You have to make a decision, but you also learn that you want to get all the facts and take into consideration everything going on around you and all the ramifications.

Really, I learned about leadership very young. I was the oldest of seven kids growing up in the Midwest and my parents worked full time. I always say I was the Special Child in Charge. Everything I learned then about disputes and keeping people motivated and showing people how fun a hard task can be, I've done all my life. I was a leader then, and that's how I came to be the leader I am today.

Posted by Tom Fox, VP for Leadership and Innovation, Partnership for Public Service on Aug 10, 2011 at 4:02 PM

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