I finished James Comey’s book A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies, and Leadership last night. Everyone who thinks or cares about leadership should read it and allow themselves to process it at a meta-level.
I don’t know James Comey and other than seeing his name, photos, opinions, interviews, criticisms, and analysis of him all week, have never really thought much about him. I noticed him during the 2016 election around the Hillary Clinton investigation – both when he announced it, ended it, re-opened it again, and closed it again. I noticed when he was fired and thought everything around it was odd.
I’ve never studied the FBI, know anyone who works there, or have really thought much about its relationship to the rest of the Executive Branch (or the government in general), other than knowing that it is part of the Executive Branch and that the director of the FBI reports to the Attorney General. Beyond than that, most of what I know about the FBI I’ve learned from fictional movies and TV shows, which I know is as accurate as the Fast and Furious movies.
My sense, from all the attention around the book in the last few weeks, was that this would be an important book. I didn’t know how it would be important, but the combination of the extremely aggressive criticism of Comey, the endless ad-hominem attacks on him, the promotion of the revelations that the book held, and a latent curiosity that I had around the dynamics of the director of the FBI before and after the most recent election, caused me to pre-order the book.
I’m going to use the reaction people had to Emily Chang’s book Brotopia: Breaking Up the Boys’ Club of Silicon Valley to frame my view of Comey’s book. When I wrote the post Book: Brotopia: Breaking Up the Boys’ Club of Silicon Valley I was simply writing about my reactions and thoughts after reading the book. Over the few weeks following my post, I had several conversations with men, all who I respect, about the book. In most of these conversations, I was surprised that they had a different, and generally negative, reaction to the book from me. When I pressed on why they had the reaction they had, it always came back to an excerpt that was published before the book was released and the ensuing controversy around the event and whether or not it happened as Emily portrayed it in the book. When I asked the question, “Did you read the book or just the excerpt” each one answered some version of “I’ve only read the excerpt.”
The remarkable thing about some of the criticism about Comey and his book was that it occurred before the book was released. The attacks – both substantive and ad-hominem, have been amplified to a volume of 11.
Comey starts the book off strong by acknowledging his own weaknesses and goals for the book. He asserts that he is focused on defining and describing ethical leadership, using his own experiences as support for the ideas of what he believes (and I agree) is a powerful and important leadership approach. While the book uses the format of a memoir, I think he did an excellent job of putting the reader in the moment of the decisions he had to make, how and why he made them, and the legal context in which he made them. As a result, the notion of ethical leadership gets developed and defined throughout the book.
The criticism of the book that I keep seeing focuses on Comey. It talks about his self-absorption, his need for personal absolution, his inability to see things from a perspective other than “his truth”, and a plethora of other weaknesses, including using his personal descriptions of the people he was talking to at various points in the book.
This is why I encourage you to read the book and reflect on it at a meta-level. There are different ways to be a successful leader. Truth and empathy are powerful, and key traits, of many of the great leaders I know and respect. For these leaders, loyalty is earned rather than demanded. Comey casts himself as this type of leader, but also acknowledges mistakes, misjudgments, and conflicts along his journey. This is another powerful message – leaders are imperfect. And, when you reflect on the various anecdotes Comey describes, from his perspective, one can see this very clearly in all of the leaders he describes his interactions with.
As I need a break from current reality, Sunday’s book will be science fiction …
Also published on Medium.