James B. Comey
Federal Bureau of Investigation
Director’s Awards for Excellence
Washington, D.C.
September 18, 2014

The Men and Women of the FBI: Defining Excellence, Every Day

Remarks prepared for delivery.

Good afternoon. It’s an honor to be here.

Congratulations to our award recipients, and a special word of welcome to the friends and family members who are here with us. It’s a truism to say that the people we honor today wouldn’t be here without your support. It’s a truism because it’s true. You put up with us and our many different personalities, and you do it graciously. So we thank you for all that you have done to see your loved ones succeed.

I would like to recognize several important guests joining us today.

  • Gerry Turnbow, Director of Army GX-2;
  • John Carlin, Assistant Attorney General for the DOJ’s National Security Division;
  • David Hickton, U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Pennsylvania;
  • Leon Cannizzaro, District Attorney for Orleans Parish in Louisiana;
  • Hillar Moore, District Attorney for East Baton Rouge Parish; and
  • Deputy Chief Edward Tomba, from the Cleveland Division of Police.

Today we honor not only FBI employees, but your employees. We couldn’t do what we do without all of you, and we are thrilled that you are here with us.

I want to take a moment to acknowledge last year’s award recipients. Each year we recognize the work of a select few, as we are doing this year, but we didn’t have the money last year to have a formal ceremony. So the 2013 award winners didn’t get the recognition they deserved and that you’re receiving today.

I realize it isn’t the same as being here in person with friends and loved ones, but I hope you’ll take a moment to recognize your colleagues from across the Bureau and to honor their accomplishments. Let’s give them a round of applause.

* * *

We are here to recognize the very best of the best. The word “excellent” is one we use an awful lot. We use it so much that we tend to lose sight of its true meaning.

We say things like, “That cup of coffee at Starbucks was excellent.”

Being offered a free pizza is excellent.

That YouTube video with the monkey riding the Segway was excellent. You know, I saw that video, and it really was excellent.

People smarter than I am have struggled with defining excellence.

Booker T. Washington defined excellence as doing a common thing in an uncommon way.

Colin Powell suggests that if you are going to achieve excellence in big things, you must develop the habit in small matters. Excellence is not the exception; it is a prevailing attitude.

Pat Riley, one of the greatest NBA coaches of all time, suggests that excellence is the end product of always doing more. We may never attain perfection, but in chasing perfection, we might catch excellence.

You see, even smart people struggle with this. Perhaps it’s one of those things that defy definition or characterization, but you know it when you see it.

You see it in the people here today who have stopped terrorists at home and abroad. You see it in those who have worked with their state and local counterparts to keep their neighborhoods safe from gangs, drug traffickers, and killers.

You see it in the people who have locked up white-collar criminals and corrupt public officials. And in those who have protected children from predators hiding on our streets and online.

You see it in people who have created new ways to stop emerging cyber threats. In those who have battled nation-states seeking to steal our ideas and our innovation. And in those who have taken our forensics and biometrics programs to entirely new levels.

You see it in our colleagues who have managed huge programs with limited resources—programs that enable us to do what the taxpayers need and expect us to do. And in the men and women who have fostered leadership, diversity, and camaraderie—those who have manifested the values that make the FBI special.

So we may not know how to define excellence, but I look at this book listing today’s recipients, and I see it in the work you have done.

Now, some of you may be sitting here today, embarrassed to stand up here in front of everyone. You’re saying to yourselves, “I just do what everyone else does. Lots of people should be recognized for the work they do.”

And that’s both true and untrue.

No one else has done exactly what you’ve done, in the same way. You’ve done something remarkable.

But it’s true because each one of you represents the excellence of the entire FBI.

I often say that in our line of work, we don’t make much of a living, but we sure do make a life. And the life you have made is captured in this book, and in the work you’ve done. So I invite you to celebrate the greatness that is the FBI.

Thank you for all that you do for the FBI, for your communities, and for our country. Congratulations to each of you.