Leadership According to Leroy Jethro Gibbs

Leroy Jethro Gibbs

Human resource directors who watch the hit television series NCIS must cringe at the leadership style of Leroy Jethro Gibbs.

Special Agent Gibbs, played on the long-running show by actor Mark Harmon, is the fictional head of a team of federal agents who investigate crimes involving U.S. Navy personnel.

His methods result in plenty of solved cases, but in real life, they would undoubtedly get him fired.

2-4-6-8 Everyone Intimidate

Gibbs is a former marine sniper who leads by intimidation.

Gibbs-SmackAs a manager, he’s demandingimpatient, and highly intolerant of mediocre effort.

He often interrupts his employees while they’re talking, seemingly eavesdrops on their private conversations (how else does he always know what they’re talking about when he’s out of the room,) and often sneaks up on them from behind.

Gibbs barks orders; He never asks.

From the way he treats his employees, it would seem that Gibbs hasn’t cracked open an employee manual in the past twenty-five years. Seriously, he won’t hesitate to give his investigators an occasional head-slap when they mess up.

Nor does he think twice about kissing his forensic scientist on the cheek whenever she uncovers helpful evidence.

My Way or The Highway

Instead, he prefers to follow his own list of rules, even if they might conflict with ordinary HR policies

Rule #9: “Never go anywhere without a knife.”

Rule #7: “Always be specific when you lie.”

What’s more, despite his military upbringing, Gibbs doesn’t even try to respect authority. He barges into his boss’s office, talks back to his superiors (even presidential cabinet members), and blatantly disregards directives with which he disagrees.

Question is—ignoring the fact that he’s a fictional character—why hasn’t his boss tossed Gibbs out on his ear?

On the Brighter Side

I Love Gibbs

As it turns out, in spite of his shortcomings, Special Agent Gibbs also has some admirable leadership qualities.

First of all, Gibbs is a hands-on, lead-by-example manager. He eschews a private office and occupies a cubicle along his field agents.

An investigator first and a boss second, Gibbs is not averse to getting his hands dirty—or getting himself shot at—in the trenches (rule #15: always work as a team).

In the process, he sets an example for his agents to follow.

Along those lines, more often than not, Gibbs is the smartest person in the room. That’s important when you’re leading highly talented employees. Top performers respect technical knowledge far more than where a person resides on an organizational chart.

The more proficient the boss is in applying that technical knowledge, the higher that leader’s status is among skilled workers. Furthermore, Gibbs is smart enough to surround himself with people who know what he doesn’t (technology, for example, is not his strong point).

Leading With Clarity

Next, although he’s quick to point out their mistakes, Gibbs insists that his employees never apologize for the ones they make (rule #6).

Apologizing, in his view, is a sign of weakness.

Better to learn from your mistakes and move on, than to grovel for a pardon.

Gibbs also recognizes the loyalty of his team members, and, in return, he always has their backs. It’s one thing for him to criticize his employees, but he won’t stand for anyone else—including the agents themselves—second-guessing their actions.

Inspiring Vision

Finally, Gibbs has a simple leadership vision: catch the crooks. His strongest leadership trait, perhaps, is his ability to inspire that desire in those who work with him. He might not be a touchy-feely kind of leader (head slaps and kisses, notwithstanding), but his passion for getting justice is contagious.

If you’re looking for a leader to emulate, and you have aspirations of moving up the corporate ladder, I suggest you turn the channel.

However, if you’re looking for results that only a heart-felt leadership approach can produce, watch and learn from Special Agent Leroy Jethro Gibbs.

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George Brymer is the creator of The Leading from the Heart Workshop®
He delivers Leadership Workshops that help leaders at all levels evolve

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  1. Suzie Price on April 5, 2011 at 12:40 pm

    George, GREAT article! Love NCIS -so it caught my eye! I tried to capture similar sentiments in this article: http://bit.ly/fyVnii @ Autocratic Leadership, Being a jerk & Loyalty.

    I once had a “jerk” boss — kinda like Gibbs – but we all loved him and were very loyal to him. One of his ‘secrets’ were that he always expected the best best out of us and the other, he was always real.

    Enjoyed your article and writing! Original, authentic and interesting. Great job! (I;m going to go now and follow up you on Twitter—I think you have interesting things to share!)

    All the Best, and More!
    Suzie Price

  2. Doug Caldwell on April 5, 2011 at 2:43 pm

    In the real world a manager like Gibbs would cause major problems for the organization. The agency keeps a high performer [catches the crooks, makes a lot $$$ for company] but lacks the values of organization. In other words you can be a bad leader as long as you achieve what the organizations wants most. Real leader is one who sets the example of the culture of company and achieves the goals.

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  4. Jeff on April 30, 2011 at 4:34 pm

    I find it amusing that people would be horrified by the leadership style of a fictional character. I find his ” style ” refreshing. A leader, by definition, leads. And you can’t do that from an office. Gibbs is out front. He expects the best from his people. He leads by example. He knows his limitations and surrounds himself with those whose talents excel his in those areas. I haven’t found a manager in the corporate world in the last thirty years who could hold a candle to this fictional character. Lead on, Gunny!

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