“I never set out to be a leader of the MI5 nor was I particularly concerned with financial rewards. I wanted a job that was interesting and would enable me to afford property and pay the gas bill.”
Baroness Eliza Manningham-Buller was Director General of MI5, the British Security Service, until she retired in 2007. She gave a keynote address to members of She Speaks Science’s mentorship programme PENTA. Her insight was infused with real-world intelligence and compassion.
Eliza spoke about the importance of diversity and inclusion in organisations.
I almost nearly left MI5 because in the early days it was dominated by men, and women were barred from various roles on the grounds that they were unsuitable. If you were gay you weren’t allowed to work there and if you were found, you were sacked. It was entirely white. By the time I left in 2007 about 10% of staff were from ethnic minorities, and there were no bars on disability or homosexuality. Half the staff were women.
Eliza strongly believes that this makes organisations much better. “How can you anticipate what people are going to try to do to you if you live in a white exclusive male bubble? You can’t. You do the job less well.”
When she retired as an intelligence officer, she asked herself “what do I know very little about? What would I like to learn something about?” The answer was science.
At school I never understood that science was exciting or creative, that it helped solve the world’s worst problems. I spent ages learning about the amoeba in biology classes and I found it incredibly boring. Chemistry was smelly, physics was all about levers. I blame some of the teaching and the presumption that women didn’t want to do it. So I didn’t, and I went down the arts route instead.
After retiring, Eliza sat on the boards of some of Britain’s most prestigious institutions. She joined Wellcome Trust as a governor, a non-executive role. “It was fascinating and I loved it. I got to meet teams who endeavour to solve the world’s biggest health problems”. Wellcome played a key role in the global research response to the pandemic, while supporting research to improve health. “At MI5 we saved thousands of lives. At Wellcome it was millions.”
To Eliza, good leadership requires human decency, consideration and genuine concern for one’s staff. “You can’t fake it”, she says.
One of the key points she made was around decision-making under uncertainty, a leadership aspect that many young people find challenging. “In my career I always had to make decisions on incomplete information. As a leader you don’t always have enough intelligence and if you are crippled by having to wait for more data before you make a decision, it might be too late. The timing is as critical as what the decision is”.
Eliza is also weary of the concept of role models in a sense that “there isn’t a template or model you need to base yourself on. You have to work out for yourself what sort of leader you want to be, play to your strengths and find your own routes to leadership. I resent that women are always told they need role models. Men are never told they need a role model. Be your own model but observe how others do it, imitate constructively when they do something well. I’ve seen leadership styles that I would never emulate. You learn as much from insensitive clumsy leadership as you can from good leadership.”
Although we tend to think a leader should have all the answers, Eliza disagrees.
Leadership is about bringing people together towards a common endeavour. They may have different ideas, some may be cleverer than you, some may have skills you don’t have. I’ve always been suspicious of those who say leadership is lonely. It is only lonely if you stick yourself on a pedestal and expect people to come to you seeking the answer. This is not proper leadership because you’re not recognising that you’re in a privileged position in a wider team who all have something to contribute.
To Eliza an important aspect of leadership is to learn from the things that don’t go well. “Do not take yourself too seriously, those who do are not taken very seriously by their staff. Celebrate success. It is far better to let your staff take credit for a success you have achieved. If you’re in the business of taking credit you’re not focusing on the outcome” were all powerful and poignant messages.
Eliza ended her talk with an admiration to what the PENTA members are doing. “World problems like health inequalities, pandemics and climate change will need scientific solutions and you are likely to be part of these solutions”.
This article is written by Dr Ghina M. Halabi, based on a keynote that Eliza delivered to She Speaks Science at an exclusive PENTA event on June 10, 2021.
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