Lauren C. Anderson learned early on that being tough doesn’t mean you can’t also be compassionate. The former FBI executive, geopolitical expert, and social justice advocate remembers a day many years ago when she stepped into a crowded elevator in the Federal Building in Milwaukee and a man she didn’t recognize greeted her.
“Hi, how are you?” he said. Sensing the confusion on her face, he added, “You don’t remember me.” She didn’t. So he explained. “Well, you arrested me.”
As a young agent less than a year out of the FBI Academy, Anderson was working on a squad that dealt with national security. But she was eager to learn and often volunteered to help other teams, including the white collar crime squad whose investigation led to the arrest of the man she ran into in the elevator.
They’d driven him almost an hour to get to the jail that day. On their way out, he said, “Excuse me.” Anderson’s fellow agent told her to forget about it and tried to rush her out, saying “Screw him” in words that are even less safe for work. But she insisted on going back to see what he needed.
The man said was really cold and asked for a blanket, which Anderson made sure the attendant would get for him. Her irritated colleague lit into her when they left, but she dished it right back. She didn’t regret spending the two extra minutes.
“That was probably the worst day of my life,” the man later told her as they rode up to their respective floors. “But you treated me with such compassion, I will never forget that. I just wanted to thank you.”
That brief interaction had an enormous impact on Anderson, underscoring the idea that “yes, we’re going to arrest him, but we can treat him with dignity and respect,” she says. Compassion doesn’t contradict toughness. “I think that to be a good human being you need to have both,” she says. “I see no dichotomy at all.”
Early incidents like the one in the elevator were “incredibly reinforcing to me throughout my career about treating people with civility and courtesy,” she says. Doing so “didn’t harm the investigations.” In fact, it was far more effective to find the right balance. “Some people think that to be tough you have to be nasty,” she says, but that’s “a really bad mistake to make.”
Anderson views being tough, rather, as being laser focused to ensure the success of a mission or project. But there’s still room for compassion.
She learned from her own experiences as well as from senior leaders at the FBI. The ones with the best reputations, she says, were tough when they had to be but also demonstrated humanity, toward both bureau employees and subjects under investigation.
“That’s what makes good leaders,” she says, “when people see you as a human being.”
So sure, most careers don’t involve putting anyone in handcuffs or bringing them to jail, but the lesson applies broadly. “I don’t care what the job is,” Anderson says. Whether you’re working in the financial sector, at a nonprofit, in the media, or in any other job, “there’s no reason people cannot be treated with civility and courtesy.”
If Anderson was able to summon compassion while remaining focused and tough in extreme situations, we can all remember to do the same when we go to work in the morning.
(Full Disclosure: Lauren C Anderson is a former employee of The FBI, The FBI is a current client of The Muse.)
Photo of former FBI Executive Lauren C. Anderson courtesy of Lauren C. Anderson.
A longtime word nerd and bookworm, Stav studied history and dance at Stanford and later journalism at Columbia. Before joining The Muse, Stav was a staff writer at Newsweek, where she wrote about everything from Nazi hunters to Chinese adoptees to Good Girls Revolt, the real story and fictionalized TV show about a 1970 gender discrimination case at the magazine. She prefers sunshine and tolerates winters grudgingly.More from this Author