A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies, and Leadership by James B. Comey

A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies, and LeadershipA Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies, and Leadership by James B. Comey

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Confirmation biases have a few peculiarities (more than being biases, that is…) They work best when we don’t know we have them… “See! I saw on the News Channel something and I just knew I was right about that conspiracy!” But even if we know some of our biases, and consciously work to set them aside, we will still find ourselves attracted to data that support what I think we want to hear. And I wanted to hear…read…this book, which I was sure would confirm what I had been thinking for two years plus. I’d read Wolff’s creative nonfiction and dismissed it as drivel with kernels of truth. This, feels of more than kernels. And I knew that I would set aside my other readings when it came in. Which is what I did.

This is more than recent events. It is a career. I see Comey offering in passing core elements of essential leadership that I have learned and try to practice. I see Comey offering candid humility – he does not shy from his mistakes and failings. I see Comey offering an explanation as to why he served, why he refused to compromise, why he felt compelled to share his experiences.

Right from the start, Comey hits with his understanding of ethical leadership, and how those who he worked for and interacted with measured (though he wasn’t measuring, he can’t help it…)
– “Ethical leaders do not run from criticism, especially self-criticism, and they don’t hide from uncomfortable questions. They welcome them.” This points hard later in the book.
– “I don’t love criticism, but I know I can be wrong, even when I am certain I am right. Listening to others who disagree with me and are willing to criticize me is essential to piercing the seduction of certainty.” Thoughtful admission and recognition of traps of power.
– “Ethical leadership is also about understanding the truth about humans and our need for meaning.”

I will probably always have a hard time with “meaning”…but I get what he was trying to say. A theme throughout Comey’s narrative, and his growth as a leader, was the recognition of the need for balance. He illustrates what he means with examples of good, even extraordinary balance (lawyer Dick Cates, an early mentor – “I saw in Dick kindness and toughness, confidence and humility. It would take me decades to realize that those pairs were the bedrock of great leadership. I also saw in this man of extraordinary judgment a fierce commitment to balance.”, and President Barack Obama, someone he came to admire). He calls out examples of imbalance, especially extreme imbalance (on Rudy Giuliani: “It took me a while to realize that Giuliani’s confidence was not leavened with a whole lot of humility.”, and President Obama’s successor.)

He does not mince words, although it is clear he made he words intentional. On personalities of presidents…George W. Bush: “President Bush had a good sense of humor, but often at other people’s expense.” And Barack Obama: “Unlike Bush, though, I never saw a belittling edge to Obama’s humor, which in my view reflected his confidence.”

Much detail on the books is covered in other reviews, professional and amateur, but I’ll highlight a few of my highlights.

On taking on the Directorship, and speaking with the entire organization (in person and via video):

I laid out my five expectations that first day and many times thereafter. Every new employee heard them, and I repeated them wherever I went in the organization:
• I expected they would find joy in their work. They were part of an organization devoted to doing good, protecting the weak, rescuing the taken, and catching criminals. That was work with moral content. Doing it should be a source of great joy.
• I expected they would treat all people with respect and dignity, without regard to position or station in life.
• I expected they would protect the institution’s reservoir of trust and credibility that makes possible all their work.
• I expected they would work hard, because they owe that to the taxpayer.
• I expected they would fight for balance in their lives.

These are good, and every leader should have values similar.

Something that resonated strongly with me on a professional level: “The best leaders don’t care much about ‘benchmarking,’ comparing their organization to others. They know theirs is not good enough, and constantly push to get better.” I have disliked benchmarking for my entire career and have had a hard time explaining why to people who think they do like it, or at least say they want it. Now I have some more words to help me.

On listening (as a leader)…he says “Until I met my wife, I didn’t know what listening really was. Neither, at least in my experience, do most people in Washington, D.C.” And,

I can recall a meeting in the Situation Room about a classified technology topic where President Obama asked some Silicon Valley whiz kid without a tie sitting against the wall what he thought of the discussion the formally dressed leaders of the nation’s military and intelligence agencies had just had at the table. The shaggy dude then contradicted several of us. Obama hunted for points of view. Maybe it was a legacy of his life as a professor, cold-calling someone in the back row.

I preach and live by four very important words in my management/engineering world: “What do you think?” I can and will still make decisions, but I also know I can be wrong. Comey gave me four more words to consider: “‘What am I missing?’ Good leaders constantly worry about their limited ability to see.”

On the pervasive theme of truth:

I tried to foster an atmosphere at the FBI where people would tell me the truth.

Another Jim-ism is “Don’t tell me what you think I want to hear. Tell me what I really want to hear.” Sometimes – though I am always reluctant to admit it – what I really want to hear is painful or embarrassing to me. Or sometimes, simply that there is a problem that someone doesn’t want to be embarrassed about or feel pain over.

By the latter third of the book, he addresses the short period of his career that would be the stamp by which he was identified. Comey drops the institutional respect that his elected leader failed to earn, that Comey showed people who also had not earned but neither had betrayed. On a meeting, his description says a lot:

This was the first time I’d ever seen Donald Trump face-to-face. He appeared shorter than he seemed on a debate stage with Hillary Clinton. Otherwise, as I looked at the president-elect, I was struck that he looked exactly the same in person as on television, which surprised me because people most often look different in person. His suit jacket was open and his tie too long, as usual. His face appeared slightly orange, with bright white half-moons under his eyes where I assumed he placed small tanning goggles, and impressively coiffed, bright blond hair, which upon close inspection looked to be all his. I remember wondering how long it must take him in the morning to get that done. As he extended his hand, I made a mental note to check its size. It was smaller than mine, but did not seem unusually so.

On a one-on-one extremely unusual and awkward private dinner at the White House, Comey noticed the ornate card on his plate and the exchange that followed with his host is telling:

“They write these things out one at a time, by hand,” he marveled, referring to the White House staff. “A calligrapher,” I replied, nodding. He looked quizzical. “They write them by hand,” he repeated.

On the loyalty question, Comey opens the book with something I hadn’t thought of…comparisons to the New York Mafia (Comey prosecuted John Gotti and others and has an incredible access to the inner workings through Sammy the Bull) and the loyalty demand:

In that moment, something else occurred to me: The “leader of the free world,” the self-described great business tycoon, didn’t understand leadership. Ethical leaders never ask for loyalty. Those leading through fear—like a Cosa Nostra boss—require personal loyalty. Ethical leaders care deeply about those they lead, and offer them honesty and decency, commitment and their own sacrifice. They have a confidence that breeds humility. Ethical leaders know their own talent but fear their own limitations—to understand and reason, to see the world as it is and not as they wish it to be. They speak the truth and know that making wise decisions requires people to tell them the truth. And to get that truth, they create an environment of high standards and deep consideration—“love” is not too strong a word—that builds lasting bonds and makes extraordinary achievement possible. It would never occur to an ethical leader to ask for loyalty.

Spot on. As to why he wrote a memo after that loyalty one-on-one, something he never felt the need to do with either of the two previous presidents:

I needed to protect the FBI and myself because I couldn’t trust this person to tell the truth about our conversations.

“This person”. Telling, perhaps, more than anything else in this book.

There’s more. But I won’t belabor it. This won’t change any minds. It confirms what I knew and suspected. It fits my confirmation bias that I am fully aware of. Yes, it seems a catharsis, and so out of character for someone who spent a lifetime trying to not be in the spotlight. That alone should telegraph the gravity of concern. That Comey exposes himself like this means he is still serving the (true) higher loyalty. He knows his country deserves to know the danger it has installed.

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