01/17/2014 10:18 am ET Updated Mar 19, 2014

Training a New Generation of Special Agents

B. Todd Jones, a former Marine and U.S. attorney, was confirmed last July as the first permanent director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) in seven years. He was appointed as acting director two years earlier in the wake of the agency's mishandled gun-trafficking operation involving Mexican drug cartels. Jones spoke about his goals for the agency with Tom Fox, a guest writer for On Leadership and vice president for leadership and innovation at the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service. Fox also heads up their Center for Government Leadership.

Q. How would you describe your leadership style?

A. I went into the Marine Corps after law school, and I draw on the core values that the Marine Corps instills in you that are very relevant to leading people and organizations. Those are simple, fundamental concepts like courage and integrity, being engaged and exercising good judgment, and having bearing or the military's command presence. That has to be tempered with confidence in what you're doing, being knowledgeable about your organization's history and its culture, and being mission oriented. ATF is a new experience for me because most of my non-Marine Corps experience has been as a prosecutor. I truly believe in ATF's mission of public safety and justice, and that makes it easy for me to apply these leadership traits and principles.

Q. What is your basic message to ATF employees?

A. ATF has a very rich culture and history. For more than 100 years, we have taken on some very difficult missions. Today we are a law enforcement agency with important regulatory functions in the firearms and explosives industries. The core mission at the heart of both our law enforcement and regulatory functions is public safety. We have some tough responsibilities: combating violent firearm, arson and explosives crimes, while at the same time regulating industries whose legitimate products are sought by criminals for diversion to the illicit markets that too often fuel those violent crimes.

In fulfilling these responsibilities, we must always be mindful of the constitutional rights of individual citizens, without being swayed by the political debates that swirl around us. My philosophy, and the one that I try to instill upstream and down, is apolitical--stay focused on the public safety mission and accomplish that mission through application of the fundamentals, each and every day.