Criminal Justice & the Rule of Law

Comey on Ethical Leadership

Jack Goldsmith
Monday, April 30, 2018, 4:08 PM

“I am reluctant to write a memoir and would rather write about leadership,” my friend Jim Comey told me in an email on June 16, 2017, about five weeks after Donald Trump fired him as Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Comey was starting to focus on writing a book, and we were discussing literary agents, book-writing techniques, and the like. “The sweet spot,” I suggested, “is to write a book about leadership but use 4-5 searing or exemplary experiences from your life to illustrate.” I am sure Comey got similar advice from many people.

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“I am reluctant to write a memoir and would rather write about leadership,” my friend Jim Comey told me in an email on June 16, 2017, about five weeks after Donald Trump fired him as Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Comey was starting to focus on writing a book, and we were discussing literary agents, book-writing techniques, and the like. “The sweet spot,” I suggested, “is to write a book about leadership but use 4-5 searing or exemplary experiences from your life to illustrate.” I am sure Comey got similar advice from many people. Surely his agent or publisher pushed him to write a memoir of sorts, especially about his encounters with President Donald Trump during the four months from their first encounter in Trump Tower in January 2017 until Comey’s ignominious firing in May 2017.

Comey did end up writing a memoir in the sense that his book is nominally about the story of his eventful life, from his childhood in Yonkers to his June 8, 2017 testimony before the Senate intelligence committee about his interactions with President Trump. But his book—which I saw for the first time after publication—is really about what he really wanted to write about: ethical leadership. It is the best book on leadership I have ever read. “Although I am no expert, I have studied, read, and thought about ethical leadership since I was a college student and struggled for decades with how to practice it,” Comey tells us. “No perfect leader is available to offer those lessons, so it falls to the rest of us who care about such things to drive the conversation and challenge ourselves and our leaders to do better.”

“A Higher Loyalty” conveys what Comey learned about ethical leadership over the course of his life—including from the bullies who beat him up in high school, from various bosses during his childhood and professional career, from the negative examples of Rudy Giuliani and Dick Cheney and the mobster Sammy “the Bull” Gravano, and most of all from his wife Patrice and from former President Barack Obama. It is also a book about how and why he practiced ethical leadership during his career, and his self-criticisms of those efforts.

I will analyze Comey’s assessment of his controversy-filled time as FBI director in a subsequent review. Below I simply try to summarize, in a way that cannot begin to do the book justice, some of what we might term Comey’s “Principles of Ethical Leadership.” (This is my list, not Comey’s; his books contains much more wisdom about leadership than the abbreviated account below captures, and his principles are much more resonant in the context of the stories he tells.) These principles have a significance that transcend current political controversies, and that will keep this book in print for decades.

1. The Sacrosanctity of Truth

The subtitle of Comey’s book—“A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies, and Leadership”—indicates the priority of truth in Comey’s thinking. He believes truth is the most important value in private and public life. “The higher loyalty is to lasting values, most important the truth,” he tells us. Truth is tightly related to leadership—it what ethical leadership seeks to ensure, and it shapes and channels ethical leadership. Comey offers little defense of truth’s intrinsic value. Its inherent goodness and attractiveness appear too obvious to require explanation. But he does defend truth as an instrumental value. He argues throughout the book that decisions based on truth are vital to good government and excellent leadership, and that a failure to adequately value truth in government is a mark of poor leadership that often leads to failure or corruption. “Without a fundamental commitment to the truth—especially in our public institutions and those who lead them—we are lost,” Comey says. All of Comey’s leadership lessons are at bottom various ways of fostering this commitment to truth.

2. Openness to Criticism and Contrary Points of View

“The danger in every organization, especially one built around hierarchy, is that you create an environment that cuts off dissenting views and discourages honest feedback,” Comey cautions. “That can quickly lead to a culture of delusion and deception.” This danger is worrisome because leaders need to know the truth, and “to see the world as it is and not as they wish it to be,” in order to make wise decisions. To fight this danger, advises Comey, the ethical leader must seek out and create an environment that invites criticism. “Ethical leaders do not run from criticism, especially self-criticism, and they don’t hide from uncomfortable questions,” he says. “They welcome them.”

Comey offers many examples of poor leaders blocking uncomfortable feedback and criticism and wise ones seeking them out. Comey criticizes Rudy Giuliani’s “imperial” leadership style, which “severely narrowed the circle of people with whom he interacted,” something Comey later realized was dangerous because “a leader needs the truth, but an emperor does not consistently hear it from his underlings.” He has a similar criticism of some people in the George W. Bush White House.

By contrast, he admires President Obama’s practice of drawing out differing viewpoints in many contexts. Obama, he writes, had a tendency to seek out the contrarian or offbeat views of the people in the outer ring of seats in the White House Situation Room. Comey offers many examples of his own attempts to seek out diverse or offbeat views, including by standing in the cafeteria line to get his lunch. Comey also tells us that Obama (and President Bush) never sat at the Oval Office desk during important meetings, but rather typically “sat in an armchair by the fireplace and held meetings in a more open, casual arrangement.” Comey believed this practice was designed to “get people to relax and open up with a president,” to put them at relative ease as part of a group in order to draw out the truth. Comey contrasts President Trump’s fixture behind the Oval Office desk. “[W]hen the president sits on a throne, protected by a large wooden obstacle, as Trump routinely did in my interactions with him, the formality of the Oval Office is magnified and the chances of getting the full truth plummet.”

The Oval Office couch example illustrates that openness to contrary viewpoints also requires a leader to be able to listen. “Listening to others who disagree with me and are willing to criticize me is essential to piercing the seduction of certainty,” Comey says. A major theme in the book is how difficult, and yet how important, it is for a leader to listen. Comey means much more by “listening” than just hearing another’s words.

True listening is actually that period of silence and allowing someone’s words to reach your conscious brain, but it also includes something else that’s a little weird: with your posture, your face, and your sounds, you signal to someone, “I want what you have, I need to know what you know, and I want you to keep telling me the things you’re telling me.” Two good friends talking to each other is a stenographer’s worst nightmare. They are talking over each other. When one is speaking formed words, the other is making sounds—“Uh-huh.” “Ooh.” “I know.” “Yup, yup, oh, I’ve seen it, yup. They’ll do that.” They’re listening to each other in a way where each is both pushing information to the other and pulling information out of the other. Push, pull, push, pull. When they are really connecting, it actually runs together—pushpullpushpull. That’s real listening.

Comey praises Obama as “an extraordinary listener, as good as any I’ve seen in leadership.”

Obama had the ability to really discuss something, leveling the field to draw out perspectives different from his own. He would turn and face the speaker, giving them long periods without interruption to share their view. And although he was quiet, he was using his face, his posture, and sometimes small sounds to draw the person out. He was carefully tracking what they said, something he would prove by asking questions when they finished; the questions were often drawn from throughout the minutes he had been listening.

In one of the most compelling scenes in the book, Comey recounts an hour-long conversation with Obama about Comey’s controversial October 2015 remarks on law enforcement and criminal justice in which Comey suggested (among many other things) that rising crime numbers might be related to the “chill wind that has blown through law enforcement over the last year.” Obama did not appreciate some of Comey’s remarks, and told him why without anger. But he first tried hard to listen and understand and appreciate Comey’s law enforcement perspective. “When we were done, I was smarter,” Comey says. “And I hoped that in some small way I’d helped him see things from a different perspective as well. Our discussion was the total opposite of the Washington listen: each of us actually took the time to really understand a different way of looking at something and with a mind open to being convinced.”

An openness to criticism and honest feedback presupposes an openness to self-reflection and self-criticism. “Those leaders who never think they are wrong, who never question their judgments or perspectives, are a danger to the organizations and people they lead,” he says. Comey is up front, literally, about what he sees as his own flaws and mistakes. In the preface he states that he “can be stubborn, prideful, overconfident, and driven by ego.” He acknowledges mistakes and regrets, and he says that the “important thing is that we learn from them and hopefully do better.” Some of the most valuable parts of Comey’s book are his efforts to practice what he preaches on being open to criticism and dissenting views, and to learn from his mistakes.

3. Confidence and Humility

Leadership requires confident decision making, and leaders feel pressure to be confident in their judgments. But, Comey argues, confidence must be tempered with humility, and indeed, true confidence entails humility. “[B]eing confident enough to be humble—comfortable in your own skin—is at the heart of effective leadership.” The reason is that, as noted above, excellent leaders worry about what they don’t know or see, and “humility makes a whole lot of things possible, none more important than a single, humble question: ‘What am I missing?’” Comey is not arguing for a “finger-in-the-wind, I’m-afraid-to-make-a-decision kind of doubt.” He is simply saying that “in a healthy organization, doubt is not weakness, it is wisdom, because people are at their most dangerous when they are certain that their cause is just and their facts are right.” Decisions, especially under time and information a constraints, must be made with the knowledge that they could be wrong. “That humility leaves the leader open to better information until the last possible moment.”

4. Kindness and Toughness

“The best leaders are both kind and tough,” says Comey. “Without both, people don’t thrive.” The most prominent example is the need to give honest, caring feedback to subordinates who are underperforming. This is often hard to do because it can be uncomfortable for both the leader and the subordinate. Throughout much of his career, Comey was “was hesitant to tell people who worked for me when I thought they needed to improve.” But he came to see this trait as cowardly and selfish. “By avoiding hard conversations and not telling people where they were struggling and how they could improve, I was depriving them of the chance to grow,” he says. “If I really care about the people who work for me—if I create the atmosphere of deep personal consideration I want—I should care enough to be honest, even if it makes me uncomfortable.” The bottom line: “The tough and kind leader loves her people enough to know they can always improve their game. She lights a fire in them to always get better.”

5. Lead by Example, Not Fear

Ethical leaders lead by example, not fear:

The good news is that integrity and truth-telling can be modeled in powerful ways, shaping cultures of honesty, openness, and transparency. Ethical leaders can mold a culture by their words and, more important, by their actions, because they are always being watched. Unfortunately, the inverse is also true. Dishonest leaders have the same ability to shape a culture, by showing their people dishonesty, corruption, and deception. A commitment to integrity and a higher loyalty to truth are what separate the ethical leader from those who just happen to occupy leadership roles.

At least two corollaries follow. First, “[e]ffective leaders almost never need to yell” because they “will have created an environment where disappointing [them] causes [their] people to be disappointed in themselves,” and because “[g]uilt and affection are far more powerful motivators than fear.” Second, “it would never occur to an ethical leader to ask for loyalty” since leadership works through affection and example and expectation, not via transaction or coercion.

This last point is obviously a comment on President Trump’s alleged request to Comey for loyalty, and indeed, Comey makes clear that Trump represents the antithesis of Comey’s ethical leader: He is not a truth-teller and does not seem interested in truth; he is not open to uncomfortable or discordant points of view and does not listen; he is both insecure and lacks humility; he is unkind to just about everyone, especially to those he leads; and he leads by fear rather than example.

* * *

Comey’s Principles of Ethical Leadership are insightful and attractive and capture movingly and well some of the main characteristics of effective leaders across many organizations and contexts ranging from government to business to family. One question “A Higher Loyalty” self-consciously raises is whether and how these principles served Comey during his fateful encounters with Hillary Clinton’s email server and Donald Trump’s shenanigans. That will be the topic of my next post on Comey’s book.

Jack Goldsmith is the Learned Hand Professor at Harvard Law School, co-founder of Lawfare, and a Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution. Before coming to Harvard, Professor Goldsmith served as Assistant Attorney General, Office of Legal Counsel from 2003-2004, and Special Counsel to the Department of Defense from 2002-2003.

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