What did you discover then?
One of the things I found was that the study of non-verbal communication draws from many fields. People think it's all psychology. It's not: it draws from anthropology, ethology (the science of animal behaviour), sociology and communication science. While everyone was looking at human communication from a different perspective, I took it upon myself to bring all of these things together and ask: how do I ensnare all of this information so that I can put it to use in the wonderful laboratory of life? At the time, researchers were carrying out research on white college students. The results of their experiments were a world away from what we were finding as we interviewed bank robbers, psychopaths, mafia members and KGB agents – as well as the victims and witnesses of crime, of course.
Has the Bureau put your work to good use?
What I learned was fed into the behavioural analysis programme I was part of. It helped agents understand who suspects really were, what to anticipate from them and so forth. Towards the end of my career, various people in the FBI came to me and asked me what I was going to do with everything I’d learnt – was it going to disappear when I retired? That’s what started me on the path of writing. I don’t think any of my English teachers in school would have expected me to become a writer, but I’d done over 13,000 interviews for the FBI and kept notebooks all the way along.
Your latest book has an interesting focus. Tell us about it…
I think it’s my 14th book. In the past I’ve written about body language, behaviour and advanced interview techniques. I’ve looked at how to spot a person being deceptive or casing a joint or doing something else criminal. The new one is really an amalgamation of everything I learnt being a sort of ethologist out in the field. In the course of all of those interviews and all of that study, including looking back through history, I learned that exceptional people – leaders – have certain things in common. As an FBI agent, I was primarily looking at bad behaviours, of course, but just by talking to scores and scores of people – perpetrators, victims, witnesses – I began to see patterns.
You eventually identified five leadership traits that make an exceptional person. Before we get into them, can these things really be learned?
No question all of these things can be learned. We now know that the human brain is very plastic – it’s good at changing, adapting and retraining. In the book, I talk about ‘myelination’. For example, I swim every day and every day I see swimmers who really don't know what they're doing. They have a terrible stroke, their arms in the wrong position, their hands in the wrong position and so on. They’ve ‘myelinated’ the wrong way to do things. But then I also see a young person being coached and learning to myelinate the proper way to do things. All of a sudden, this kid is like a torpedo in the water. Essentially, we have the ability to create very robust systems around bad behaviours, but we can also recreate them around good behaviours. And we can retrain ourselves at any age. It all depends on who we want to model ourselves on.
Any final words of encouragement before we jump into the five traits?
Whenever I give a speech, I always ask the audience: who wants to be average? No one wants to be average. Who wants to be exceptional? Everybody raises their hand. Then I ask: how do you become exceptional? Everybody just looks at each other, because no university teaches you how to be exceptional. This is something you have to teach yourself. The great thing is, though, there’s no cost to any of this! All of my experience has taught me that learning the things I talk about is very effective – and it costs nothing.