The first time I met Robert Mueller was in 2005.
I was working in the United States Senate Judiciary Committee at the time, and Director Mueller was in his fourth year as Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. He had been appointed by President George W. Bush right after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and had been working doggedly to modernize the agency and respond to the new and ever-present threat of terrorism. After he served a full 10-year term with distinction, President Obama would ask him to stay for an extra two years, and the U.S. House and Senate would both overwhelmingly approve the extension. He was highly respected, universally trusted, and widely seen as infallible.
But when I first met him, he was explaining that the FBI had screwed up.
For five years, the FBI had been working on a new software application called the Virtual Case File, or VCF, that was designed to replace a system that relied on obsolete infrastructure from the 1970s. They had spent millions of dollars, gone through five changes in project leadership, and repeatedly promised success. There was just one problem: the software didn’t work. It was missing key components, it was poorly designed, and it wouldn’t even perform its tasks during initial tests – let alone real-world conditions.
Now, it was clear that the FBI would have to abandon the project – an embarrassing failure after spending more than $100 million in taxpayer money. But what was notable about Director Mueller was that he didn’t make excuses, or cast blame on the engineers, or the contractors, or his predecessor. Instead, he stood in the office of a United States Senator and took ownership of the failure, outlining the mistakes that had been made and charting a path forward. He spoke with supporters and critics, walked us through his successes and failures, and volunteered additional information that we hadn’t even thought to ask about. In a town like Washington DC, where accountability isn’t always easy to come by, I remember being struck by his honesty, his integrity, and his commitment to learn the right lessons and figure out how best to proceed.
Those characteristics are in short supply, because it’s much easier to make excuses and to cast blame than to acknowledge mistakes and accept responsibility – particularly when your mistakes play out squarely in the public eye. But the truth is that we learn from failures, and we’re apt to learn a lot more if we’re willing to accept that we’re occasionally wrong. I’ll be the first to acknowledge that I’m not perfect (well, maybe not the first, but I’m on the list). I’ve certainly made mistakes before. And in every instance, being willing to recognize failure and listen to the advice of others has helped me to learn from my mistakes, correct my misperceptions, and figure out how best to proceed. In my very first meeting with Bob Mueller, I saw that principle in action.
By the way – less than a year after the failure of VCF, the FBI announced it was beginning a new, more ambitious software overhaul called Sentinel. Under Bob Mueller’s leadership, it was finished successfully and under-budget – and it’s still in use today.
This week, I spoke with someone who knows a great deal about Bob Mueller, and about leadership, disagreement, and keeping people safe: Lisa Monaco. Lisa has served in positions from Director Mueller’s chief of staff at the FBI to President Barack Obama’s chief homeland security advisor. We talked about now-Special Counsel Mueller, about fallibility, and about how listening to people with different opinions can help shape good policy.
Take a listen – and stay tuned for more.