8 principles J. Edgar Hoover can teach police about leadership

Study of J. Edgar Hoover’s life reveals that he was one of the most successful leaders in law enforcement history, regularly demonstrated the following traits of great leadership


Since he died, J. Edgar Hoover’s love life has been — inexplicably — the subject of much gossip and conjecture. In fact he had only one true love in his life that can be proved absolutely. Hoover loved his FBI.

Study of J. Edgar Hoover’s life reveals that he was one of the most successful leaders in law enforcement history, and he regularly demonstrated the following traits of great leadership.

1. Have a Vision
In 1924, J. Edgar Hoover was placed in charge of an inconsequential investigative agency called the Bureau of Investigation. Not satisfied with the status quo of law enforcement in 1924, Hoover had a vision that one day his agency would lead all law enforcement into an era of professionalism. 

Study of J. Edgar Hoover’s life reveals that he was one of the most successful leaders in law enforcement history. (AP Image)
Study of J. Edgar Hoover’s life reveals that he was one of the most successful leaders in law enforcement history. (AP Image)

Some today may deride the FBI, but no one can question their professionalism. That Hoover’s vision became a reality is greatly due to his efforts.

2. Be Adaptable
Hoover immediately recruited a cadre of neatly dressed, college-educated agents. These well-educated federal agents went head to head in the ‘30s with robber gangs who were using automobiles and machine guns with deadly effect. 

Hoover’s street-naïve agents lost initial skirmishes with Pretty Boy Floyd, the Dillinger Gang and Baby Face Nelson. Hoover decided his agency had to adapt to overcome. 

Hoover waived the college education requirement in some cases. He targeted for recruitment of local law enforcement officers with a history of man-hunting and winning gunfights. He added Charles Winstead, Charles Hurt, and Delf “Jelly” Bryce to his roster, among others. 

These impressive man-hunters ended the careers of some of the most famous killers of the time.

3. Focused Leadership Brings Results
As a leader, Hoover always gave focus to his agents. In the ‘30s he created the “Public Enemy Number One,” to identify the next object of their attention. 

One “Public Enemy” — John Dillinger — unsuccessfully resorted to plastic surgery to change his appearance and destroy his fingerprints. Dillinger was caught due to focused determination of the FBI.

In World War II, Hoover changed his agency’s focus to protect the homeland against foreign enemies. After that, he targeted Communism and still later organized crime. 

The praise he would receive for these efforts would contrast sharply with the criticism he would receive for his agency’s focus on the leaders of the Civil Rights and Anti-War Movement in the ‘60s. 

4. Maintain a Positive Relationship with the Media
Hoover knew that to accomplish what he wanted for his agency, he had to have the media behind him. At the agency’s birth, Hoover became a public relations expert, keeping his “G-Men” constantly in the Newsreels. 

As the Bureau’s image was polished and its fame grew, so did its budget and public approval. These PR efforts extended into the 60s, leading to one of the most popular shows of that era, The F.B.I, starring Efrem Zimbalist Jr.

5. Pursue Cutting-Edge Innovation
In 1935 Hoover succeeded in renaming the Bureau of Investigation, the Federal Bureau of Investigation. 

Hoover brought under one roof all the fingerprints of all the criminals in the nation. This made it difficult for a fugitive to permanently avoid apprehension by changing their name and crossing a state line.

J. Edgar also created the FBI Laboratory to introduce scientific analysis into criminal investigation. 

6. Understand that Training is the Key to Success
J. Edgar Hoover instituted the FBI Academy for new agents and insisted that his agents continue to train throughout their careers. Hoover also initiated the FBI National Academy for local law enforcement as a means for educating — and transforming — all law enforcement officers nationwide.

7. Strive to be a Transitional Figure and Prepare Your Agency for Life without You
A leader should leave the people they led better off for having followed them. There is no doubt that Hoover accomplished this at the FBI. Even though he was a pure administrator — and his portrait stared down on every employee of the FBI — he left them to go about their day to day operations inspired, but untethered.

He allowed his people to develop and grow into the leaders who would one day replace him. 

Toward the end of his life, Hoover said, “The greatest enemy is time.” 

When he died at 77 in 1972, J. Edgar Hoover was irreplaceable — and yet easily replaced — because he had prepared his agency to live on without him.

8. Strive to Leave a Legacy
Hoover’s vision of law enforcement as a profession became the shared vision of thousands of cops, who strived in a multi-generational effort to belong to a profession. Hoover pursued that vision as relentlessly as his agents pursued public enemies. A vision pursued and realized can become a legacy.

Thanks, J. Edgar.

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