“I wonder what her story is,” FBI Director James Comey said to no one in particular as our motorcade rolled through Lower Manhattan, past an elderly woman on a bench embracing a swaddled child.
“Everyone has a story and I bet her story is incredible.”
This was not an unusual musing from our now departed leader — a giant of a man with an even bigger heart, whose focus was always on trying to understand and improve the lives of others.
This particular visit centered on a meeting in New York with counterterrorism officials. Afterward, rather than head back to the airport, Comey asked to be taken to the local FBI office so he could visit “the troops.” As the head of a deployed organization with offices nationwide, he would utilize any visit outside Washington to connect with our people. He walked the building floor by floor, meeting colleagues at their desks, extending his hand and offering a simple thank you for their service.
To say his firing jarred much of the FBI family would understate the varying levels of sadness, anger and confusion that followed the sudden dismissal of a man held in such high regard throughout American law enforcement. With the election and its aftermath consuming the national psyche, it may be hard to see past current headlines to reflect upon the incredible impact he had on our organization — but his legacy is a story worth telling.
How does one describe the impact someone like Comey had on the FBI? You start by doing something he would have shunned: highlighting his success. Like his predecessor, who faced and tackled challenges unique to his era, Comey took on growing problems within the organization in key areas such as leadership, agility and diversity. It might seem strange to call a respected leader a maniac, but Comey was nothing short of maniacal in driving change throughout the organization in order to right an off-axis leadership selection process, make the FBI more agile, and correct a major diversity problem.
Comey’s servant leadership principles were contagious and spread like wildfire throughout our organization. He purposefully populated our senior ranks with leaders who were kind but tough, confident yet humble. He cultivated a cadre of team-oriented field commanders who were not threatened by the notion that their subordinates might know more than they did.
Realizing he himself could never stop improving, he fought to ensure he would not get trapped in a bubble devoid of varying perspectives, or become comfortable with the trappings of power. He got his own lunch, placed his own calls, and had zero patience for ego or arrogance. Any of our 36,000 employees could email him directly and he would respond. His servant leadership style was reflected in those who surrounded him: senior staff who shared his passion for the rule of law; junior staff like myself who never once felt hesitant to speak up to challenge him with a differing point of view; and, as would prove his most important picks, an accomplished deputy director and senior executives who are now successfully navigating us through transformational waters.
Concerned the bureau was not as agile as it could be in adjusting to address emerging threats, Comey worked tirelessly to ensure that new ideas and inventive ways of doing business were not only accepted, but embraced. As he would passionately admonish new recruits during regular visits to the FBI Academy: “Do not let the grumpy old people crush your spirits! I’m a grumpy old person, and I can’t see us as freshly as you do. Study us and make us better.”
Comey looked at the organization and realized we soon risked a proverbial fall down the stairs. Our agent population had become increasingly white and change was needed. As he would say, not only is focusing on diversity the right thing to do, it is also an issue of effectiveness. If we do not accurately reflect the communities we serve, we risk being less effective. He assembled a machine of personnel and resources dedicated to attracting diverse talent. Indeed, his personal commitment to diversity was illustrated in the reason we flew 2,000 miles to Los Angeles on the day he was fired — so he could attend a diversity recruitment event and personally pitch talented young people on joining the FBI.
When asked how he wanted to be remembered, Comey would quip that he wanted to be forgotten. He imagined finally getting us to a place where the solutions to our leadership, agility and diversity challenges were so ingrained in our culture, we would no longer remember even having a problem. Those of us shaped by him will tirelessly work to ensure his goals are achieved — although he will not soon be forgotten.
It’s strange writing about Comey in the past tense, because it feels like writing an obituary. In a way I am doing just that, because despite curious observations from outsiders regarding Comey’s standing among our FBI family, we are very much an organization in mourning. Fortunately for the FBI, his legacy of leadership and service will permeate our great institution for generations to come as the countless young leaders he touched rise in the organization. Although we must eventually move on and accept recent events — the security of the American people demands our focus on mission — many of us will never stop celebrating the legacy of our seventh director. Like the woman on the bench we passed that day in Manhattan, Director Comey has a story, and it’s incredible.