Tuesday, April 24, 2018

A Higher Loyalty by James Comey - NOW Is the Time...

James Comey coordinated an updated, easy-to-remember Mission Statement for the FBI soon after he took office...exists to “protect the American people and uphold the Constitution of the United States."


WHO AM I TO TELL others what ethical leadership is? Anyone claiming to write a book about ethical leadership can come across as presumptuous, even sanctimonious. All the more so if that author happens to be someone who was quite memorably and publicly fired from his last job.

I understand the impulse to think that any book written about one’s life experience can be an exercise in vanity, which is why I long resisted the idea of writing a book of my own. But I changed my mind for an important reason. We are experiencing a dangerous time in our country, with a political environment where basic facts are disputed, fundamental truth is questioned, lying is normalized, and unethical behavior is ignored, excused, or rewarded. 

This is not just happening in our nation’s capital, and not just in the United States. It is a troubling trend that has touched institutions across America and around the world—boardrooms of major companies, newsrooms, university campuses, the entertainment industry, and professional and Olympic sports. For some of the crooks, liars, and abusers, there has been a reckoning. For others, there remain excuses, justifications, and a stubborn willingness by those around them to look the other way or even enable the bad behavior. So if there ever was a time when an examination of ethical leadership would be useful, it is now. 

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. 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. 

Ethical leaders do not run from criticism, especially self-criticism, and they don’t hide from uncomfortable questions. They welcome them. All people have flaws and I have many. Some of mine, as you’ll discover in this book, are that I can be stubborn, prideful, overconfident, and driven by ego. I’ve struggled with those my whole life. There are plenty of moments I look back on and wish I had done things differently, and a few that I am downright embarrassed by. Most of us have those moments. The important thing is that we learn from them and hopefully do better. 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. Doubt, I’ve learned, is wisdom. And the older I get, the less I know for certain. 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. In some cases, they are a danger to the nation and the world. 

I have learned that ethical leaders lead by seeing beyond the short-term, beyond the urgent, and take every action with a view toward lasting values. They might find their values in a religious tradition or a moral worldview or even an appreciation of history. But those values—like truth, integrity, and respect for others, to name just a few—serve as external reference points for ethical leaders to make decisions, especially hard decisions in which there is no easy or good option. Those values are more important than what may pass for prevailing wisdom or the group think of a tribe. 

Those values are more important than the impulses of the bosses above them and the passions of the employees below them. They are more important than the organization’s profitability and bottom line. 

Ethical leaders choose a higher loyalty to those core values over their own personal gain. Ethical leadership is also about understanding the truth about humans and our need for meaning. It is about building workplaces where standards are high and fear is low. Those are the kinds of cultures where people will feel comfortable speaking the truth to others as they seek excellence in themselves and the people around them. Without a fundamental commitment to the truth—especially in our public institutions and those who lead them—we are lost.

As a legal principle, if people don’t tell the truth, our justice system cannot function and a society based on the rule of law begins to dissolve. As a leadership principle, if leaders don’t tell the truth, or won’t hear the truth from others, they cannot make good decisions, they cannot themselves improve, and they cannot inspire trust among those who follow them. 

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. We cannot ignore the difference. 

I spent a lot of time thinking about the title of this book. In one sense, it came out of a bizarre dinner meeting at the White House, where a new president of the United States demanded my loyalty—to him, personally—over my duties as FBI director to the American people. But in another, deeper sense, the title is the culmination of four decades in law, as a federal prosecutor, business lawyer, and working closely with three U.S. presidents. In all those jobs, I learned from those around me and tried to pass on to those I worked with that there is a higher loyalty in all of our lives—not to a person, not to a party, not to a group. 

The higher loyalty is to lasting values, most important the truth. I hope this book is useful in stimulating all of us to think about the values that sustain us, and to search for leadership that embodies those values.

A Higher Loyalty:
Truth, Lies, and Leadership

By James Comey

In my opinion, the Author's Note that begins this excellent book is one of the most important statements. For me, it was mostly a regurgitation of my own thoughts, concerns, and experience after over 50 years in working in higher education and/or while working for a publisher and then as a book reviewer... I have not only sympathy, but empathy, for James Comey, as I, too, was fired without cause. I found much in the book that paralleled my life as Associate Director and Acting Direction of a major administrative unit on a university campus. 

When I was first working at the university, the Chairman of Political Science was talking about the ethics and honesty of a government official--I don't remember who at this point--but what he said stuck with me... "An individual who decides to take public office must be above the norm in ethics..." Since then I have watched and seen much that has bothered me about the personal truth, ethics and leadership of those who hold our public offices, especially those who are elected...

One of the first things I thought when I finished the book was that it should be required reading for Business and Public Administration and Political Science students. The facts behind the firing of the FBI Director is a lesson in itself. But it is more important...and most important...that the book be read as broadly as possible given the present situation in Washington. I had already developed my own concern and fear of what is happening...Comey's statement: "We are experiencing a dangerous time in our country, with a political environment where basic facts are disputed, fundamental truth is questioned, lying is normalized, and unethical behavior is ignored, excused, or rewarded." merely confirmed that this book was one I wanted and needed to read!

I must spotlight early on that it was illustrative of this administration to have Comey fired while he was out of the office and without prior notice by any of his line superiors. I have seen more and more individuals who have reach middle or high level leader positions who not only don't have the experience, make no effort to learn what the job requires, and, especially, is unwilling to handle the major personnel issues of a leader. But did you know that James Comey was at a site visit in California, where he was working on an important project he had initiated--to bring more minority individuals in as agents!?!

Readers will begin the book by learning of Comey's professional background, but you will also learn about the importance of early training in his home about his moral conduct. He learned early the difference between good and bad, sometimes through his own errors. But that parental training helped him to work to move toward improvement.

With one of the major issues facing America being the treatment and division on racial differences, I found it gratifying and significant that Comey, on his own initiative, had started a recruitment effort to bring agents in who could show and help in the diversity very much needed to deal with the expanding division that I saw initiated directly from the man in the presidency of our country. Note that Comey had worked for three different presidents and had already began this program.

One of the other major issues that had bothered me greatly and covered in the book was related to the support, and reasons given, for some of our religious individuals in America to support this President...
I see many so-called conservative commentators, including some faith leaders, focusing on favorable policy initiatives or court appointments to justify their acceptance of this damage, while deemphasizing the impact of this president on basic norms and ethics. That strikes me as both hypocritical and morally wrong. The hypocrisy is evident if you simply switch the names and imagine that if a President Hillary Clinton had conducted herself in a similar fashion in office. I’ve said this earlier but it’s worth repeating: close your eyes and imagine these same voices if President Hillary Clinton had told the FBI director, “I hope you will let it go,” about the investigation of a senior aide, or told casual, easily disprovable lies nearly every day and then demanded we believe them. The hypocrisy is so thick as to almost be darkly funny. I say this as someone who has worked in law enforcement for most of my life, and served presidents of both parties. What is happening now is not normal. It is not fake news. It is not okay.
I have never been a political person, nor do I have any allegiance to a specific political party. It was only as I saw what was happening during the lead-in television to the election that I saw a man who purposely instigated hate, prejudice, lack of respect for women and so much more. When I saw that the Republican party allowed this kind of behavior, I was incredulous to hear that it was mostly Christian people who supported him. Then I saw a major leader who said the same as Comey included above...How could his policy issues be more important than his basic ethics--his moral conduct. I still don't have an answer, but with Trump as well as Bush, I was gratified that Comey's opinion and narrative of actual events matched mine.

But this is not a personal applause statement about James Comey. It is merely as I have watched politics and leaders for nearly 40 years, I have come to the same conclusions as the former Director of FBI.

I have no other choice than to highly recommend this book to those who are willing to listen/read...and who are also concerned about what has happened to the United States especially recently. I have felt Comey a truthful man, who was quite willing to admit he didn't know how to handle the impossible situations he was placed in. I have also felt concern about those above him...and many others who have spoken one way or another for the last 15 months and more... But who, when cornered as to take a stand to their leader, chose to not act or to send a subordinate... Been there and done that... American leaders have much to learn about the three points highlighted in the book: Truth, Lies, and Leadership!


I have been in various leadership roles through most of my professional life, including on he job and in professional organizations. I believe my background allowed me to read this book and verify its Truth... 
This is more of an opinion piece than I normally allow myself for reviews. Please feel free to comment and I'd be happy to discuss my position further...

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