**5 Goodreads Stars**
“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 make extraordinary achievement possible. It would never occur to an ethical leader to ask for loyalty.”
“Donald Trump’s presidency threatens much of what is good in this nation. We all bear responsibility for the deeply flawed choices put before voters during the 2016 election, and our country is paying a high price: this president is unethical, and untethered to truth and institutional values. His leadership is transactional, ego driven, and about personal loyalty.”
I admit I picked up James Comey’s A Higher Loyalty because I wanted the scoop on what happened with Donald Trump. I checked out this book at my local public library assuming that what I was going to read was going to be somewhat biased against Donald Trump (and, frankly, I am not sure how you could write anything in support of him at this point in time), but what I got was actually something quite different. James Comey’s A Higher Loyalty is a refreshing take on what it means to be a leader, to work as a public servant in the US, and what it means, at least in Comey’s world, to be ethical.
I walked away with a newfound appreciation of someone I wasn’t quite thrilled with given the Clinton email situation. I learned that James Comey is a family man who has desired to balance his work life and home life in order to be present for his 6 children and wife. I learned that he experienced bullying as a kid, and that experience shaped how he saw the world and how he approached leadership. Comey helped build diversity curriculum into FBI staff training, including modules where all FBI employees learn about the FBI’s history with Martin Luther King, Jr. He and his wife, Patrice, are also foster parents. I also learned that he is human and, at times, has been a bully, made mistakes, and has regrets. But unlike Trump, Comey seems to be aware of his personal faults and actually uses them to strengthen his character and make better decisions.
If you are looking for juicy details about Comey’s relationship with Donald Trump, you’ll find them at the end of the book. However, that is not what this book is about. It is about Comey’s experiences working under Bush and Obama and in the FBI. As much as you may dislike either former President, he has kind, thoughtful things to say about both of them (though he clearly enjoyed working under Obama, who “had the ability to really discuss something, leveling the field to draw out perspectives different from his own”). He provides intimate insight into the inner-workings of the White House and FBI. I found discussions of both Obama and Bush very enlightening, especially in contrast to the president who is currently in office. Comey writes:
“It was no surprise that President Trump behaved in a manner that was completely different from his predecessors – I couldn’t imagine Barack Obama or George W. Bush asking someone to come onstage like a contestant on The Price is Right. What was distressing was what Trump symbolically seemed to be asking leaders of the law enforcement and national security agencies to do – to come forward and kiss the great man’s ring. To show their deference and loyalty.”
What did I take away from this book? As someone who is committed to continually improving my approach to teaching and leading teams (something I see as a work in progress, because I am human!), I found this book very useful. For example, he argues that good leaders don’t demand loyalty from their followers and coworkers. They listen to all sides of an issue and then make an informed decision. He likens ego-driven leaders to the Italian mafia members he tried and convicted early in his career as a lawyer. He sees Trump as someone akin to the Italian mafia: as a person who only cares about himself and his personal loyalties, as someone who has never thought twice about lying. Towards this end, he writes:
“I see no evidence that a lie ever caused Trump pain, or that he ever recoiled from causing another person pain, which is sad and frightening. Without all those things – without kindness to leaven toughness, without a balance of confidence and humility, without empathy, and without respect for truth – there is little chance Trump can attract and keep the kind of people around him that every president needs to make wise decisions. That makes me sad for him, but it makes me worry for our country.”
Trump, Comey notes, has absolutely no experience working with groups of people who don’t answer to you, which is what government work entails. He writes:
“Running a private family-held company is, of course, quite different from running a nation – or even running a large public corporation. You have to deal with various constituencies who don’t report to you and to live under a web of laws and regulations that don’t apply to a typical CEO.”
This book is clearly timely given that Trump is in office, and there is also some discussion of the Russia investigation. According to Comey, Trump requested several times over that he “lift the cloud” of the investigation. As Comey emphasizes throughout the book, the FBI must be independent from the Office of the President or else the FBI isn’t doing its job. Comey believes Trump does not understand this basic principle because he operates under the principle of loyalty (like the mafia mentioned above) and expects the FBI to work for him, not for the citizens of the United States:
“The Life of Lies. The silent circle of assent. The boss in complete control. Loyalty oaths. An us-versus-them worldview. Lying about things, large and small, in service to some warped code of loyalty. These rules and standards were hallmarks of the Mafia, but throughout my career I’d be surprised how often I’d find them applied outside of it.”
Below are some of my favorite quotes from the book, which is beautifully written. Comey made me understand who he is as a human being, what it means to truly be moral and ethical in a corrupt world, and how those of us who are working for the state or federal government can lead our society in a more positive direction. I highly recommend this book to people who are interested in leadership and/or American politics.
“President Obama would never have considered such a conversation if he did not have enough confidence in himself to show humility. In fact, if I saw any hint of imbalance with President Obama as a leader, it was on the confidence side of the scale.”
“Humans tend to do the same dumb things, and the same evil things, again and again, because we forget.”
“…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.”
“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.”