The term ‘hot wash’ begins with the combat soldiers who doused their weapons with hot water to remove dirt and grime until they could properly break down and clean their rifles. Today ‘hot wash’ refers to an after-action discussion of what went wrong and right following an event.
The insights that you’ll learn from the FBI Way are the ‘hot wash’ of Frank Figliuzzi after his career at the FBI. Feel free to take some or all of what Frank learned and apply it on your life and business. Frank condenses the Bureau’s process of preserving its core values into what he calls the 7Cs – Code, Conservancy, Clarity, Consequences, Compassion, Credibility and Consistency. These seven elements perfectly summarize the FBI Way.
“The FBI Isn’t perfect. No human organization is. But it’s an honorable and hugely valuable institution whose integrity-based excellence should be explained, studied and preserved. If you’re looking for a book that claims the Bureau has the exclusive answer to integrity, this isn’t it. But if you’re seeking how the best law enforcement and security agency in the world gets it right most of the time, read on. Join me in this after-action hot wash.” – Frank Figliuzzi
A code is a set of principles or rules. Companies, communities and countries at large reflect their values if those entities are to survive and thrive. Special agents at the FBI might be highly educated, often with advanced degrees and professional experience, but they’re expected to display humility and responsibility at all times. Take the range for example, agents are expected to clean up their own mess after firing hundreds of rounds during just one firearm session. To owning passersby, this might look like farm workers during crop harvest. In reality, this action is an epitome of a Bureau value: sweating the small stuff and getting the job done right, or not at all.
All good codes of conduct have one common trait. They reflect the core values of their organization. Businesses, schools, community organizations or any group seeking to codify their rules to live by must first establish their core values. For FBI, this beings with its eight core values:
- Rigorous obedience to the Constitution of the United States
- Respect for the dignity of all those we protect
- Uncompromised personal integrity and institutional integrity
- Accountability by accepting responsibility for our actions and decisions and the consequences of our actions and decisions
- Leadership, both personal and professional
Sometimes even the leaders or squads at FBI can become toxic and those individuals were removed or reassigned to keep their misaligned values from reaching critical mass. In rare circumstances, federal agents mistakenly overvalue indictments and convictions to a point where they were ready to say almost anything to win in court. Of course, they didn’t last long.
A team, a business and especially a government can quickly fall apart when the leader at the top values only the win, not how the win is earned. Members of such tribes have a choice to either reinforce their collective values by pushing back against the misbehaving leader or to succumb, letting the malicious values become theirs. An organization like the FBI that develops deeply entrenched values and internal enforcement processes is far less likely to see its ethical guardrails demolished.
When you enter the FBI, you join a conservancy. Conservancy is a collective effort to preserve and protect the true worth of a place or thing. In the FBI, everyone is accountable to someone. Field agents answer to their squad supervisors, who answer to assistant special agents in charge, who answer to special agents in charge and… you get the idea. Leadership accountability is critical to preserve the values of a group. The conduct of most senior leaders and their stance toward misconduct ultimately drives integrity down the chain of command.
In some less desirable circumstances, conservancy demands sacrifice. You can’t heed the call of conservancy without sacrificing precious time, energy or family life. By the time an FBI agent completes their career, countless holidays, vacations and anniversaries often go unused, never to be reclaimed. The sacrifices of a committed conservator can go well beyond those missed holidays and family time. Sometimes, you sacrifice your being.
“I’m sometimes asked to describe the most disturbing thing I’ve ever seen. Can I give you some advice? Don’t ask cops, rescue workers, or combat veterans to do this. It’s one thing for professionals to discuss such stories among themselves or with their loved ones; it might even be a form of therapy. But when unsuspecting civilians pose this question, they’re asking you to relieve the imaginable and share it with someone who likely isn’t ready for the answer…. Conservancy sometimes demands the ultimate sacrifice. The last thing you want as an FBI agent is to have a field office building named after you. That’s because you’ll never be there to see it.”
The beauty of a collective conservancy is that everyone feels responsible for something bigger than themselves. And that feeling of responsibility produces excellence. The excellence comes from the uniquely human capacity to see beyond self or herd survival and strive toward a common goal. Whether it’s a team of bakery employees who view themselves as nourishing a community or a group of Americans working to preserve democracy, we perform our best when we’re accountable for something beyond ourselves.
The FBI has the ‘bright lines’, which are not just standards but practically religious commandments. Crossing a bright line gets you fired.
One reason the FBI achieves results on the streets is because it maintains clarity in its own house. For example, almost every employee can list the agency’s investigative priorities in order. No matter what line of work they’re in, they understand the carefully developed guidance and direction, even in times of confusion and grayness. Success or the lack of it in each priority is carefully measured in ways that matters.
“I’m not talking about counting the number of arrests. I’m referring to measuring the true impact achieved in a community, a region or across a national program. Defining and measuring what matters help achieved a kind of collective clarity across the Bureau. This same approach works for personal lives, sports teams, large corporations, and entire countries.”
Sometimes clarity can be elusive even for the FBI. The Bureau is constantly dealing with matters that aren’t what they appear to be. Agents are sometimes required to make assumptions even in the most dangerous situations. The fog of a high-speed, high-stake operation can cloud the sharpest minds and inject stress into an already tense scenario. That’s why it’s necessary to interpret evidence without adding unnecessary assumptions. Take for example, medical students are taught ‘diagnostic parsimony’, also known as ‘Occam’s razor’, which translates to ‘the simplest explanation is often the right one’.
We all know consequences are the results of our actions, but only a few want to face those complications when they’re negative. Yet a code without consequence is like a window dressing, a dangerous con game.
Consequences put the teeth in a code. Everyone has a role in caring for those teeth. If you leave your dental care entirely up to your dentist and skip your daily dental hygiene, you’re going to have problems. The same goes for leaders and teams who think consequences are inconvenient or someone else’s job. Their codes are destined for decay.
Codes of conduct, especially in the corporate world, are often deliberately vague. They avoid articulating specifics for rule breaking. You’ll often hear corporate types saying they like the freedom to decide whatever penalty seems appropriate for a given misconduct and that they can’t possibly foresee any potential misconducts. Disciplinary categories don’t always need to be precise or comprehensive. Even those of the FBI are quite broad. For instance, the disciplinary action for drinking and driving begins at 30-day suspension but it could also result in dismissal depending on the severity of the incident.
Experienced agents and FBI leaders become adept at calculating the potential consequences of each tactical and strategic choice available to them. From a street-level undercover drug by all the way to the geopolitical fallout when a foreign diplomat is nabbed for spying and booted out of our country, agents learn to rapidly process the options and the impact in the form of decision trees that portray ‘if this, then that’.
“In the Bureau, we were constantly weighing consequences, and engaging in second- and third- order thinking that required us to make quick, often life-and-death calls, based on available data. Should the SWAT team hit the house full of hostages now or wait until we were certain of the exact location of everyone in the house? How many hours has this tactical team been lying motionless in the rain and how long is too long to expect them to operate at full capacity?”
To put it simply, FBI leaders often make decisions despite the consequences, not instead of the consequences. In contrast, some companies or industries avoid the results of an action when they’re personally or professionally painful. Without going into too much detail, a pharmaceutical company can be inclined to keep selling its bestselling drug, despite knowing the drug is highly addictive.
“Sometimes, often regularly after 9/11, senior FBIHQ executives had to weigh in, as part of the intelligence community, on whether today as the day that a known enemy combatant overseas would meet Allah. The concern of those decisions literally indeed lives.”
It might sound a bit extreme to use terrorism as an example for undesirable conduct. But this is a reminder that we need a clear, commensurate and enforced response to that which threatens our code. Any individual or a country at large that shies away from triggering established consequences is, in one way or another, putting the group’s well-being in jeopardy.
Compassion is the sympathetic consciousness of others’ distress together with a desire to alleviate it. In the FBI, compassion is an essential element of consequence. Compassion provides balance to what could otherwise be a harsh and cold process.
As sure as people need to be clear about the bright lines, they also need to trust that their leaders will treat them as valued human beings. That’s why great leaders are holistic about weighing the consequences. They do so by assessing an individual’s total record, the context that led to the incident and the individual’s capacity to overcome their wrongdoing. Compassion also means taking time to recognize if the misconduct is the result of a dysfunctional system, in which the employees work in. As Frank said, “During my late stint as the FBI’s chief inspector, our teams investigated all agent-involved shootings. As quickly as negative trends were discovered, advisories or remedial training would be developed and disseminated to the field. If FBI SWAT teams were increasingly firing their weapons during high-risk car stops because cornered felons managed to crash their way through our vehicles, retraining was ordered on locking bumpers during a car stop.”
While FBI agents don’t always need supervision, there are times they need compassion, and that’s when having some rank allows a manager to make a difference. A compassionate leader makes the difference between having a code that fails or a code that flourishes. If you’re entrusted with the leadership level, you’re compelled to lead with compassion. It’s not just right. It’s smart.
Credibility is the cornerstone of any value-based endeavor. When a leader of a team lacks credibility, the members will never truly assimilate lasting values.
Dictators force compliance to their rules through intimidation. Cult leaders gain followers who are more loyal to the person than to the system. That’s why cults are destined to collapse and dictators are destined to decay. The only thing they stand for is themselves.
Throughout history, entities and empires failed when protecting a person became more important than preserving their principles. In contrast, when enlightened processes took precedence over personality, values tended to prevail. For example, most citizens stay true to the law not because of the governing entity, but because we recognize that laws are put in place for collective benefit of the society.
It’s not enough to simply establish a way for employees to report integrity violations, you must have a system in place to rapidly respond to and investigate alleged concerns. Employees stop sharing what they know when they think their attempts are falling into a black hole. Similarly, an agency can’t say it values fairness if it doesn’t offer accused agents a formal opportunity to tell their side of the story, notify them when they’re facing a serious discipline and give them a chance to appeal.
“The FBI has tried to make it as easy as possible to do the right thing. It provides employees and members of the public multiple methods of reporting misconduct concerns…. The credibility of the FBI’s process is enhanced by the fact that it keeps internal investigators and adjudicators separate. They’re in entirety different units with entirely distinct command chains.”
Criminals pursued by the FBI have more rights than the agents who target them. There’s no right to remain silent, no protection against self-incrimination nor any substantive search and seizure protections where FBI property is concerned. Failure To fully cooperate with an internal inquiry can result in dismissal. That has to be the FBI Way because the public deserves no less from the agency it needs to trust the most.
It’s easy to consistently champion your standards if everyone around you agrees with them. But this is not always the reality. People and teams, when under stress, are vulnerable to abandon their principles. Stories abound of colleges covering up misconduct by star athletes, companies downplaying sexual harassment allegations against top executives and government agencies burying news that make them look bad. The bad news is the cost of compromising your standards turns out to be greater than the discomfort of adherence.
Like the FBI, teams at any levels can enhance their capacity to consistently do the right thing by empowering employees to speak out, elevating leaders who embody core values and instinctively defending against threats to those values. Steady preservation of values offers the added benefit of resilience in the face of adversity because it allows room for adaptation, without jeopardizing what you stand for.
“During the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020, we saw some of our nation’s leaders abandon proven crisis management precepts, and even American values, in favor of shorter-term gratification and political and economic expediency. Other leaders, primarily state governors, stuck with core crisis concepts and values like preservation of life, data-driven decisions, and transparent truth-telling despite intense pressure to reopen their states and ease public health restrictions. Consistency saved lives.”
FBI manuals contain seemingly endless guidance for just about everything. The guidance helps maintain consistency. There’s even a protocol saying an agent should never let the gas gauge below a quarter of a tank. That’s common sense but it’s also smart on a more figurative, personal level. We all need to maintain some reserve in our body’s fuel tank. We can’t run on fumes for long without risking engine damage.
“Consistency should never be confused with rigidity. IN fact, bureaucracy at its worst is mired in a morass of useless, outdated rules and regulations… The FBI may have ‘Bureau’ in its middle name, and it may have its fair share of frustrating processes, but it’s pretty darn good at realizing when it needs to change and at rewarding those who make those changes…. Successful organizations and people remain faithful to their code even as they adapt and transition how they carry out. This might even mean that you redefine your entire approach in order to remain consistent with your values. That’s what the FBI had to do after 9/11. After that national crisis, flexing and adapting meant surviving.”