The FBI Way by Frank Figliuzzi Book Summary

The FBI Way, Inside the Bureau’s Code of Excellence by Frank Figliuzzi


What can leaders learn from the FBI’s approach to performance under stress? Plenty, says former FBI assistant director Frank Figliuzzi. The US Federal Bureau of Investigation subjects employees to strict scrutiny and high standards. As a result of selecting the right people and immediately inculcating its values, code of conduct violations are rare. The FBI Code is based on the “7 C’s”: Code, Conservancy, Clarity, Consequences, Compassion, Credibility and Consistency. Clarity ensures that all the FBI’s people know how they are expected to conduct themselves based on group values. The FBI sets unambiguous rules and clear consequences. Compassion is built into the compliance process to ensure values assimilation and credibility. Figliuzzi details what you can learn from the FBI’s emphasis on professionalism, clarity, compassion and credibility. 


  • ?????The FBI carefully selects and cultivates its employees. Agents face extreme scrutiny before and after the FBI hires them.
  • The FBI’s culture is founded on values-based leadership and performance.FBI employees hold each other accountable because they are part of a conservancy.
  • The first step to high-level, values-based performance is to develop core values, such as the FBI’s 7 C’s: “Code, Conservancy, Clarity, Consequences, Compassion, Credibility and Consistency.”
  • The FBI operates successfully under high stress because its workforce assimilates its values.
  • Real-life FBI stories illustrate the 7 C’s. Leaders can apply the FBI’s approach to achieve optimal performance.
The FBI Way Book Cover

The FBI Way Book Summary

?????The FBI carefully selects and cultivates its employees. Agents face extreme scrutiny before and after the FBI hires them.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) has more than 35,000 employees in the United States and abroad, yet only a small percentage of employees ever face misconduct allegations or findings. That is because employees are strictly screened when they apply, and because the FBI’s organizational values and culture are strongly taught and assimilated.

“No one judges the Bureau more harshly than itself. ”

The FBI’s code flows directly from its core values, the “7 C’s”:  Code, Conservancy, Clarity, Consequences, Compassion, Credibility and Consistency. All organizations should develop and disseminate their core values, then promote a code of conduct that reflects those values. The FBI identified honesty under oath as one of the essentials of its code. Therefore, all employees know that they will be dismissed if they lie under oath. Any organization can ask itself what kind of conduct is most injurious to its brand and its mission, and establish clear consequences accordingly.

Like all effective codes of conduct, the FBI’s code reflects the organization’s essential values and specifies a list of duties that exemplify that code. In the case of the FBI, that starts with obeying the US Constitution.

The FBI’s culture is founded on values-based leadership and performance.FBI employees hold each other accountable because they are part of a conservancy.

The FBI preserves its values by teaching its employees that they are responsible for something greater than themselves – the institutional integrity of the organization. The concept of conservancy starts early with new agents being assigned to investigate their colleagues’ FBI vehicle accidents, and it extends to management where leaders must take assignments in auditing and internal affairs functions. Rigorous audits by the FBI’s Inspection Division regularly ensure performance standards across the agency. These inspections also serve as leadership lessons for those conducting the audits.  

This exercise teaches collective conservancy: the concept that individual actions have institutional consequences. The FBI’s Inspection Division checks all its offices and programs, generally once every three years. Its leaders hold each other to account. 

Conservancy demands sacrifice – often with missed holidays and family time, physical and mental exhaustion, and – sometimes – even the supreme sacrifice of death in the line of duty. FBI employees are exposed to often disturbing and tragic events and face considerable psychological stress on the job. Agents routinely handle deeply distressing evidence. For example, investigators had to listen to the cockpit audio of the final minutes of the lives of two pilots of a carelessly loaded cargo jet that crashed after take off from Miami International Airport in 1997.

“A code without consequences is mere window dressing and, at worst, a dangerous con game.”

Committing to conservancy can also have deadly consequences. On April 11, 1986, one of the worst days in FBI history, agents Jerry Dove and Benjamin Grogan died in a prolonged gun battle with suspected bank robbers in Miami; the FBI named a field office there in their honor. Collective conservancy cultivates excellence in a workforce, for example, by giving each Bureau member responsibility for a larger mission.

The first step to high-level, values-based performance is to develop core values, such as the FBI’s 7 C’s: “Code, Conservancy, Clarity, Consequences, Compassion, Credibility and Consistency.”

Clarity is a critical aspect of the FBI code. Clear rules show agents the lines they must not cross. The worst violation is dishonesty under oath. In a sworn statement, one agent claimed he used an FBI car to take his daughter to a daycare center on three occasions. Evidence later showed he did so 14 times or more. A 30-day suspension without pay is the minimum penalty for unofficial use of a “bucar,” and for transporting an unauthorized passenger. The FBI fired the agent and prevailed in a legal fight over his dismissal in the US Court of Appeals. 

When leaders make capricious decisions to discipline members of an organization, that behavior erodes their credibility and the organization’s compliance with standards. The FBI’s Office of Professional Responsibility (OPR) offers employees a list of the consequences for each code violation. Employees who drink and drive face penalties ranging from a 30-day suspension to dismissal.To uphold its values, the FBI accepts the organizational consequences of its actions even if that jeopardizes investigations.

The Bureau also strives to bring clarity to such chaotic situations as the September 11, 2001, attack against the United States by terrorists using hijacked passenger planes. The Bureau and the US intelligence agencies rapidly identified the hijackers and the sources of their support, including the master planner behind the attack, Osama bin Laden. 

The FBI operates successfully under high stress because its workforce assimilates its values.

The Bureau extends compassion, another foundational aspect of its code, to crime victims through its Victim Services Division and other programs unfamiliar to most Americans. For example, families of Americans murdered in terrorist attacks are eligible for assistance from the Terrorism and Special Jurisdictions Program, as are victims injured in such attacks. The Child Victim Services Program ensures that interactions with children in the program are appropriate for the age of each child. 

Since the Innocence Lost National Initiative started in 2003, it has helped the FBI recover or identify nearly 7,000 children trafficked for sex and convict more than 2,800 traffickers.

Transparency determines an organization’s credibility and how much trust it inspires. The FBI’s Office of Professional Responsibility details disciplinary actions of unidentified agents in a quarterly report. Such institutional transparency reminds employees of what constitutes misconduct and what penalties to expect. The FBI honors excellence through its Honorary Medals Program. 

“You don’t need to be perfect to be credible, just passionate about getting it right. ”

An organization’s credibility hinges on the belief that it objectively investigates and adjudicates misconduct. The FBI treats its leaders’ misconduct more severely than its agents’ bad behavior. The Bureau fired Deputy Assistant Director Peter Strzok after an internal investigation revealed he wrote texts criticizing former President Donald Trump while helping the Bureau investigate links between Russia and the Trump presidential campaign in 2016. 

Employees can report colleagues’ misconduct to multiple units of the FBI, including the OPR, the Office of Integrity and Compliance, the Inspection Division and the Ombudsman’s Office. Not all misconduct leads to disciplinary action. Many cases end with counseling or an oral reprimand that the FBI does not include in an employee’s personnel file

The FBI’s credibility sustains its law enforcement mission. In a major test of its credibility, the Bureau once prevented the departure of a loaded passenger jet from Atlanta’s airport based on the FBI’s belief that a group of passengers wearing saffron-colored turbans planned to assassinate an official of India who was aboard. Agents talked to all the passengers, checked all bags and found no suspected assassins. The Indian official and his security team were shot to death in a moving car after they returned to India. 

Real-life FBI stories illustrate the 7 C’s. Leaders can apply the FBI’s approach to achieve optimal performance.

The FBI is committed to internal investigation, self-cleansing and adjudication, as it showed in the case of Robert Philip Hanssen, an FBI executive who worked for 20 years as a spy for Russia. He is now serving 15 consecutive life sentences in a federal supermax prison in Colorado. Hanssen joined the FBI in 1979 and, by 1982, was delivering classified documents to Russians. 

The FBI realized the intelligence services had a mole, but it initially suspected someone in the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) before evidence pointed to Hanssen. Among other once-secret information, he delivered US nuclear war plans, new weapons designs and the identities of Russian government intelligence officers who spied for the US government. Russia executed as many as 10 of them.

Credibility is especially important in FBI public corruption cases against police officers, politicians and government officials. For example, Jimmy Dimora was a Cuyahoga County (Cleveland, Ohio) commissioner from 1998 to 2010 and a suburban mayor for 17 years. He used elective office to extract bribes from business owners, making the county a de facto crime syndicate. 

The FBI began to rebuild the county government’s credibility in July 2008, when agents with search warrants raided multiple Cleveland locations and seized files, boxes and computers. Ultimately, the Bureau won convictions against more than 70 defendants, including business leaders, contractors, government employees, two county judges and the county auditor. The court convinced Dimora of 32 charges, including bribery and racketeering. He is now serving a 28-year sentence. In 2009, voters approved a change in the structure of the Cuyahoga County government to keep similar abuses from happening.

Leaders anywhere can learn to apply the FBI’s approach to optimal performance.

Organizations and individuals undermine themselves when they fail to defend their principles. The FBI preserves its values consistently, even in stressful circumstances, because the Bureau elevates employees who demonstrate its values and empowers employees to speak up. After the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, the FBI began a major transition in its mission from investigating such attacks after they happen to predicting and preventing them. 

Agents observed interrogations of detainees at the US military base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba (GTMO) and realized that the military and the CIA had interrogation rules that would render any statements worthless as evidence in a US criminal court. This inconsistency led President George W. Bush to create the High-Value Interrogation Group, which involved multiple agencies led by the FBI. 

Regular briefings at all levels of the FBI foster employees’ confidence that they know how to make the right choices. In one example that other organizations can adapt, the FBI uses briefings as forums for agents to summarize the status of their cases or deliver updates on their teams, field offices or national programs. These frank discussions become seminars on how to make decisions. 

While the FBI was investigating the 9/11 attacks, critics argued in favor of splitting the Bureau into two agencies – one for arresting criminals and one for gathering intelligence. Support for this proposal waned, in part, because  lawmakers spoke with officials in the United Kingdom and Canada – both of which have a national police force and a separate agency that clandestinely gathers domestic intelligence – and learned about the red tape such a division of duties creates. 

In Canada, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) handle criminal cases involving threats to national security, which usually originate in Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS). The US intelligence community urged the RCMP to detain a suspected Russian spy, Jeffrey Paul Delisle, a sub-lieutenant in the Royal Canadian Navy in Halifax. He had access to classified information in Canada and the United States, the UK, New Zealand and Australia. But the Mounties waited for CSIS to build its case against Delisle. Meanwhile, he continued conveying secrets. 

The process of arresting Delisle took so long that the FBI considered trying to lure Delisle to the United States to arrest him on its charges. He ultimately received a 20-year prison sentence in Canada. 

Instead of dividing, the agency reorganized. New FBI agents and intelligence analysts (IAs) now train together as preparation for working together in field offices. But an internal wall separates the FBI’s Cyber Division from its Counterintelligence Division – though both focus on spies. The FBI has shifted its focus from investigations to intelligence-based domestic security. Its adaptation demonstrates to leaders in other settings that preserving your organization’s values includes finding new ways to support them in response to varying circumstances, risks and threats.

About the Author

Frank Figliuzzi

Former FBI special agent Frank Figliuzzi served the Agency as an assistant director charged with leading the Counterintelligence Division. He is a national security analyst for NBC News and MSNBC.

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