Neil Basu is Assistant Commissioner for Special Operations in the Metropolitan Police and for the last three and a half years has been Scotland Yard’s Head of Counter-Terrorism and the National Police Chief’s Council’s lead for CT Policing. He is currently on secondment as Director of the Met’s Strategic Command course, which prepares police officers for promotion to the most senior ranks in the service. He is the country’s most senior serving police officer of colour (being half Indian, half Welsh).
As part of our ‘Leadership Month’, Levelling the Playing Field was privileged to meet Neil and pick his brains for wisdom around the subject of leadership from his 29 years in the force.
WHAT HAVE BEEN YOUR MOST PRESSURISED MOMENTS AS A LEADER?
I’ve dealt with 12 terrorist attacks and 29 disrupted terrorist plots. When you get that first phone call to say there’s a terrorist on the loose and X number of people are dead, it’s a moment you never forget. For every one of those 12 phone calls I remember exactly where I was.
I don’t care how hard or experienced you are; for a split second you totally freeze. At least 400 thoughts come to mind but because of my level of training and experience you’re able to make decisions very quickly indeed. I call them my ‘crucible moments’ and they test your resilience to the limit.
You get through it all through training, experience and all the hard knocks you took during your early years, but you don’t relax until the moment you know people are safe. It’s at that point when it hits you. Lots of people who worked with me were deeply affected by the experience.
My job in 2017 was to work with the Security Service to stop terrorist attacks. But there were five and 36 people died on my watch. I think about that fact every single day. That’s not healthy. People ask me, ‘How do you sleep at night?’ I refer to when George W Bush and his Secretary of State, Colin Powell, were asked this question during the Gulf War. Bush said he ‘slept like a baby,’ then Powell said, ‘I sleep like a baby too… Every two hours I wake up screaming!’
HOW IMPORTANT IS RESILIENCE IN LEADERSHIP?
On a Friday on my leadership course, I leave them with a question to consider for the weekend: ‘what makes you think you’re resilient enough to be a chief officer?’ We all talk about being physically fit and having strong families at home to support us and that’s true. All of those things are incredibly important.
That’s part of the reason why children on your project are at risk of becoming involved in the Criminal Justice System – they don’t have people who value or support them, a lot of them aren’t physically fit, therefore aren’t mentally fit and they can’t channel their energy, aggression and testosterone in the right way. They have feelings of stress and anxiety. All of that stuff is more important to children than it is to adults in some respects because they don’t get space to reflect.
I used to work in gangs and organised crime and I dealt with a lot of children killing or trying to kill other children. I never blamed a single one of those children, because I knew their back stories and how they had ended up there. All of that takes a massive toll.
I think real resilience comes from your values and a sense of purpose that give you the grit you need to thrive in life, not just survive. What’s most important is that sense of purpose. Getting out of bed every day for a purpose, that’s what keeps you going and that’s where your resilience, self-worth and value comes from. For me, I go out and save lives for a living; how fantastic is that?
LEADERS AND PARTICIPANTS ON LtPF REALLY VALUE LIVED EXPERIENCE IN A LEADER. HOW IMPORTANT DO YOU THINK IT IS?
I sometimes worry that in my profession we put old-fashioned heroic leaders in front of staff who show off how wonderfully successful they are. That’s not the way to teach people, in my view. If you want to be a leader, you don’t necessarily have to be a perfect role model in how you’ve always conducted yourself.
I’m not standing here as an archetypal role model or the best leader in the world. I’ve been good at my job but I’m not sure I’ve been that good at anything else! I’ve not always been the greatest of role models because I’ve been rather busy doing my job rather than looking after the people who should have counted most. Now I’m nearing the end of my career that’s a pretty awful thing to recognise.
One of the biggest leadership lessons in life is: you’re leading at every moment of your life, whether you’re a parent or amongst your peers or friends.
The reality is that life is bloody hard. To have survived and reached the age and position when you can talk about it is an achievement. I grew up in a very white place (Stafford in the Midlands) in the 1970’s. It’s not me being Assistant Commissioner in the Metropolitan Police and Head of Counter-Terrorism that counts, it’s actually the whole journey from when I was a kid.
LtPF PLACES GREAT IMPORTANCE ON MENTORING. HOW IMPORTANT HAS IT BEEN IN YOUR CAREER?
There’s absolutely nothing more important than coaching and mentoring. I have almost every privilege we can be given apart from white privilege: I’m middle-class, male and born into a household with successful parents, siblings and friends. But in my professional life the greatest advantage I’ve had is 28 people – who I can name – who have all supported me at pivotal moments. Although they were not ‘official’ coaches and mentors, they performed that role almost without realising it.
I had typical imposter syndrome and they either took me under their wing or said, ‘you’re really good at this’ or ‘You’re not putting yourself forward’. If you’re black or a woman or disabled or have neurodiversity issues you’re going to have bigger imposter syndrome than anyone else and you feel like you have to be twice as good as everyone else and never make any mistakes. So you end up working twice as hard as anyone else just to get to the same level.
Some of those 28 people said to me, ‘Don’t be ridiculous, go for it. You’re better than the other candidates.’ Others told me, ‘You start every sentence with a self-deprecating comment. They will stop investing in you if you keep doing that. They won’t believe you have the drive or self-confidence.’ Advice from those 28 people provided me with the most important moments in my career. If you didn’t have those people in your corner who recognise how good you really are, then you’d never go for it.
WHAT ARE YOUR EXPERIENCES OF RACISM AND HOW HAVE THEY AFFECTED YOU?
I feel guilty that I didn’t talk about it enough when I was younger and of lower rank but, let’s be honest, if I had, I may not be talking to you now as Assistant Commissioner.
I have learned there are tools and techniques to navigate the hurdles of racism. Those 28 people can tell you how to navigate the people and organisations who put up those barriers. They are not unique to ethnic minorities, they can apply equally to you if you are a woman, LGBTQ plus, disabled or living with neurodiversity issues.
What I’m interested in why people are prejudiced. I have a zero-tolerance attitude to it. I get very angry when I see professional standards units giving people written warnings for being homophobic, sexist or racist. They should be sacked. The idea that you can somehow be on the fence about that subject is ludicrous.
As somebody who has been there trying to protect myself and my career, I can understand and forgive people who don’t want to speak out, but as leaders it is despicable that you should allow that to go on. Giving people a third chance is often a very bad thing to do indeed, because everybody around them then thinks that’s OK. Then that becomes your culture – the worst thing in your firm that you are all prepared to tolerate.
WHAT IMPACT HAS SPORT HAD ON YOUR LIFE?
Sport is the backbone of my life. I played competitively from the age of five until my early 20s. I still train several times a week at 53, but not the way I did when I was 18 (except in my head!)
Sport fundamentally changes people’s lives. I wouldn’t be where I am today if I hadn’t been good at sport. I started off as a footballer but didn’t get the trial with Stafford Rangers I wanted. I also played rugby until I was 35 and have been weightlifting since I was 11.
In 1979 on my first day at High School, I was beaten up and stuffed into a locker. I went straight home and got my parents to buy me a set of weights. By the time I left I was the biggest kid in school and I certainly never got bullied again. More importantly, sport gave me a self-confidence I certainly didn’t have back then.
WHAT ADVICE WOULD YOU GIVE TO YOUR 21-YEAR-OLD SELF?
Have some fun. Work/life balance is not a joke. When I was working 14 hours a day as a staff officer, the then-commissioner Sir Paul Stephenson, (he won’t mind me naming him), told me that “90% work, 10% life” is a perfect balance. That was his perfect balance, but I’ve found out it isn’t mine. I wish somebody had told me that because I’ve done it for 29 years. Something closer to 50/50 would have been a sensible thing to do. I might even have settled for 70/30 – the point is, the choice is yours.
When I mentor people at the Police College who want to be in the top jobs, I ask them what compromises in their life they’re prepared to make. They look at me like I’ve just landed from another planet. They need to understand what it takes. I wish someone had told me.
MANY THANKS, NEIL
Thank you, it has been very cathartic! Your project sounds fantastic and I’m very keen on you being successful. I will help in any way I can.
WORDS OF WISDOM
"GIVE PEOPLE PERMISSION TO MAKE MISTAKES AND THE OBLIGATION TO LEARN FROM THEM"
Mistakes will happen; it is inevitable; what happens after differentiates average organizations from greats ones. In many instances, when errors are made, our actions shift from doing the right thing to covering our behinds. Pointing fingers rather than accepting personal responsibility, hiding errors rather than fixing them, and allowing minor problems to become big ones because they’re inadequately addressed.
Remember that mistakes are vital to our growth; we often put way too much pressure on ourselves to seek some unrealistic ideal of perfection. As the leader, let your team know that there’s no shame in making mistakes, and most importantly, you have their back when they happen.
I have seen people in leadership positions duck and throw their people under the bus when mistakes happen, and this leads to mistrust, lack of inspiration and the fear to try anything new. The most extraordinary people in their felids have made countless mistakes; they didn’t give up. They persevered and inspired many people to follow their example; as Albert Einstein puts it, a person who never made a mistake never tried anything new.
WORDS OF WISDOM
“YOU DON’T INSPIRE PEOPLE BY SHOWING HOW AMAZING YOU ARE BUT BY SHOWING THEM HOW AMAZING THEY ARE”
As a leader, you have an incredible opportunity to change someone’s life every single day. It could be something as simple as saying hello, writing a handwritten note stating you did an excellent job today or remembering your employee’s names when greeting them.
Some leaders take these things for granted but believe me, your employees will feel valued. Leadership is all about people, the little things make a huge difference, and the organizations that get it are the ones that ultimately succeed.
Leadership is never about tearing people down and making people feel less than themselves. Leadership is about people; it’s about inspiring people to believe that the impossible is possible. It’s about developing and building people to perform at heights they never imagine. It’s about making a positive impact on your community, your company, your department, your employees, and by extension, the world.
As a leader, you don't inspire your team by showing them how amazing you are. You inspire them by showing them how amazing they are.