Frank Abagnale

What can a convicted felon teach students about leadership, ethics and principles?

Quite a bit, it turns out. 

Frank Abagnale, Jr., whose life story was told in the movie “Catch Me If You Can,” opened up about his personal transformation in a webinar that included students from Fisher’s Global Applied Projects (GAP) program as well as students taking the college’s “Crucial Conversations” course. That class, taught by Senior Lecturer Mark Sullivan, focuses on how to handle important discussions effectively and appropriately.

This online event became an international gathering, as other students from across the globe also participated in the opportunity.

Abagnale ran away from home when he was 16 years old, ending up on the streets and trying to survive. Attempting to be resourceful, he impersonated an airline pilot for Pan Am for a couple years and a hospital doctor. He also took bar exams in Louisiana and passed; he wrote approximately $2.5 million in bad checks all around the world. He was finally arrested at the age of 21.  

He was sentenced to 12 years in prison after being brought back to the United States, but he served only four before receiving an offer: work for the FBI throughout the duration of his sentence or stay behind bars. He agreed to the opportunity and remains employed there to this day.

“He brings a way of thinking that most professionals don’t consider,” said Sullivan, who helped coordinate the session. “It is particularly helpful for our GAP students who are engaged in solving tough consulting challenges for demanding clients to see the kinds of questions he draws on to cultivate insight and action that makes a difference.”

Sullivan also revealed that Abagnale’s ability to build trust and emotional safety in demanding social situations was another important reason for students to hear him speak.

“He has many stories and examples of why smart, seasoned professionals believed him for years while he assumed the role of a practicing surgeon, lawyer, airline pilot, etc.,” Sullivan said. “This is particularly good for our Crucial Conversation students to see up close.”

Despite all the success Abagnale has ultimately found, including a successful career and a Hollywood movie about his life story, he would not do it over again if he could. He described his criminal life as very lonely, with many nights spent in tears.

The criminal-turned-agent also remains haunted by his past crimes. Although he never stole directly from any individual, solely victimizing banks and corporations, many people were still very hurt because he had violated their trust. They believed he was their friend. It was not just about money; people have faith in other people, he said. 

Abagnale warned students that life isn’t necessarily short; it can be very long. He said if they burn a personal or professional bridge, it may seem like nothing at the time, But as they grow older, those things will come back to become difficult personal burdens. 

Working with the ethical agents at the FBI had a significant impact on him, and it was one of the factors that helped him transform as a person. He described them as amazing people who loved their country, loved their families and were dedicated to what they did. He applauded their character and ethics.

Abagnale said his life has come “full circle” since he was 16, and he discussed the challenge of rebuilding his credibility from the ground up.

Sullivan described the 72-year-old Abagnale as someone who “has matured into a very wise and ethical human being.”

“It is one of the reasons the FBI has him continually spending a fair bit of time coaching and guiding both their young, new, inexperienced agents, as well as their seasoned professionals,” Sullivan said.

Abagnale handed out important principled leadership advice to students: As long as they have confidence that they are doing the right thing and expressing it, and they live up to their promises, they will earn trust and people will want to do business and work with them.

Photo courtesy of Keppler Speakers