Former FBI director James Comey shares his experiences from his two decades in government, exploring what good, ethical leadership looks like, and how it drives sound decisions. His journey provides an entry into the corridors of power and a lesson in what makes an effective leader. Mr. Comey served as director of the FBI from 2013 to 2017, appointed to the post by President Barack Obama. He previously served as U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York and as the U.S. Deputy Attorney General in the administration of President George W. Bush. From prosecuting the Mafia and Martha Stewart to helping change the Bush administration's policies on torture and electronic surveillance, overseeing the Hillary Clinton e-mail investigation as well as ties between the Trump campaign and Russia, Comey has been involved in some of the most consequential cases and policies of recent history.
[...] In Comey's telling, Obama was something of a saint in the swamp. Obama valued what Comey himself cherished and regarded as near-sacred: the independence of US institutions and, more important still, the obligation to tell the truth.
There was a time when we might have teased such a man, mocking him as an earnest altar boy. But we don't have that luxury now. In today's world, truth has become a precious commodity and those ready to risk their careers to defend it are few and far between. Comey may be self-righteous, but in 2018 and given the alternatives, that has come to look like a rather tolerable vice.
In addressing his childhood, Comey talks about a devastating move from a familiar school and neighborhood (his grandfather had been the local police commissioner) where he had been one of the popular kinds to another where he suffered bullying. He tells us about a terrifying incident when, as a teenager, he and his brother were held at gunpoint by a home invader later identified as a serial rapist. He recounts some stupid mistakes he made as a grocery stockboy, and of the owner, a man whose example gave him some important lessons in what makes a good leader. Later, we see him discovering the work of Reinhold Niebuhr in a college religion class. (You may have seen Comey's tweets under Neibuhr's name, many of them using the theologist's own words.) He gives us insights into his long marriage to a supportive wife and their tragic loss of an infant son. Along the way, he remembers teachers, colleagues, and others who set an example for the man he hoped to become.
And, of course, there is his long and fascinating career. After a stint as law clerk to a federal judge in Manhattan and a short stint with a private law firm, Comey joined the US Attorney's Office for the Southern District of New York--the same office currently investigating Michael Cohen, President Trump's "fixer." One of the cases he worked on was the Gambino crime family prosecution, and he has a lot of intriguing stories to tell about that experience. He was deputy special counsel to the Whitewater investigation--his first run-in with Hillary Clinton--and, as US Attorney for the Southern District of New York, investigated President Clinton's pardon of fugitive Marc Rich, a Clinton campaign contributor facing federal charges of violating trade sanctions against Iran. I had no idea that Comey was the lead prosecutor in the case against Martha Stewart. His discussion of the case and the dilemmas he faced are a fine example of the way he uses his legal experiences to demonstrate his sense of ethics. Years earlier, he had upheld the conviction of a young black assistant pastor who had lied to the FBI in attempting to protect his mentor. If this man served time for his crime, why should Martha Stewart be shown leniency for the same crime and others?
Comey's first headlong plunge into Washington politics came when he opposed the Bush regime's extension of the NSA's domestic wiretapping program, which had been declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court. The story of his visit to John Ashcroft's hospital bedside, accompanied by three trusted colleagues, including then-FBI Director Robert Mueller. They persuaded Ashcroft, the Attorney General, to uphold the discontinuation of the wiretaps, thwarting the wishes of President Bush, Vice President Cheney, White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card, and White House Counsel Alberto Gonzalez. This was not Comey's last run-in with these politicos and others, including Condoleeza Rice. He opposed the interrogation procedures--waterboarding, sleep deprivation, humiliation, etc.--as forms of both physical and mental torture, and he was involved in the investigation of Scooter Libby for lying to the FBI, obstructing justice, and outing CIA agent Valerie Plame. (Is it possible this is yet another reason, in addition to sending a message to cronies under investigation, for Trump's recent pardon of Libby?) Again and again, he stands up for his belief that members of the Justice Department, once appointed, must work independently and not be steered by the Executive Office. He addresses the criticism he received for appearing sympathetic to the concerns of Black Lives Matters and recounts his efforts to increase the percentage of minority personnel working for the FBI, encouraging employees to recruit talented people by telling them about the opportunities the department offers and by "finding joy" in their own work.
And of course, there are the last few years: the issue of Hillary Clinton's private server and lost emails, the concerns about Russian meddling in the 2016 election, and the exchanges with Trump that resulted in Comey's firing. Comey is nothing if not honest about his personal faults and the mistakes he has made, but he attempts to explain the internal conflicts he faced and the rationale behind his decisions. You may not agree with him, but you can't help but agree that he thought he was doing his job to the best of his ability, holding fast to the truth he still believes will set us all free and following the example of his lifelong mentors. ( Once his book tour is over, he will be returning to the classroom, teaching courses in effective and ethical leadership.)
I listened to this book on audio and recommend it in that format. Comey is a good writer and a very good reader, and hearing him tell his own story adds credence to it. I enjoyed A Higher Loyalty not as an exposé or even a self-justification, but simply as the story of one man's life and its challenges.
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.
There is quite a bit of biographical material and I enjoyed it. Comey is a decent writer, and I hope he keeps doing it. He does have a tendency to come across a bit as an over-grown boy scout, though there is some well-placed humor. We do need serious people in places of power.
I’ll cut to the chase here and say I believed his version of events and trust him almost completely. As to the naysayers who question why he’s come out with this book now, I think he feels an obligation to alert us to exactly what kind of man we’re dealing with in this president and mitigate his impact. It certainly seems that much of Comey’s political party is, unlike him, incapable of stepping up.
I’m sure my review with be an exercise in preaching to the choir, as I suspect most Trump supporters won’t bother reading either my review or the book itself. This book describes in detail events that they’d rather ignore or just outright deny even occurred. So it goes.
I expected James Comey’s “A Higher Loyalty” to come in at about 400 pages and that most of it would be a very detailed indictment of President Trump. Wrong, the book is a slim 277 pages and Trump is barely mentioned until page 211. Up until then it has been an autobiography of sorts with a fairly heavy dose of introspection – and that’s a good thing. Because it is Comey building a foundation which not only explains where he came from and how he got there, but also what his makeup is, what his values are. And what he expects of himself….and others. I expected it to be a prosecution, a rehash of every bit of negative evidence even remotely connected to Trump. Wrong. The book is very well written and flows well, covering events well known to those who have been paying attention over the past two years, and with just the right amount of detail. While there are no major revelations, “A Higher Loyalty” does lay out Comey’s thought process on the key events, e.g. Clinton’s emails, and shares his reasons for the choices he made, as well as how he saw likely outcomes for other choices. And lastly, given it’s seemingly lofty title, I expected the book to be a glowing salute to every step taken by the ex-FBI director before and after his termination. Wrong again. Comey explains and doesn’t whine. He admits to some errors but does not express any major regrets.
There are other pluses. Comey talks about his meetings with Obama and Bush over the years and compares the three presidents. He wasn’t a big fan of Obama but appreciated his “ethical leadership” skills. He remarks how Obama found time to laugh and worked hard to make people around him feel comfortable. He adds that he never saw Trump laugh, except when it was at someone’s expense. Comey does not get defensive about his Clinton email actions (see more on this below).
There are several other sections I enjoyed very much and/or found engrossing and I think you will too:
Page x (Author’s Notes) – Comey’s faults as he sees them
Page 62 – Why people are prosecuted for lying to the FBI
Page 163 – Interesting detail about Clinton emails and how many were classified “Secret” and “Top Secret”
Page 181 - The three hour plus interview with Clinton and her five person legal team
Page 188 – Three ways Russia tried to interfere with U.S. elections
Page 213 – Biden at an Obama staff meeting taking the conversation in “Direction Z”
Page 217ff – The Intelligence team meeting Team Trump at Trump Tower pre-inauguration
Page 267 – Perhaps the most stunning passage of all. The phone call between Trump and McCabe where our president makes his “loser” comment. Stunning. Our president.
There are a few passages in “A Higher Loyalty” I found to be disappointing. Three times by my count Comey mentions noticing white skin at Trump’s eyes, apparently caused by eye protection for sun bed use. This seemed rather small of the author as does a comment about hand size, but these are rather minor flaws. I also thought Comey got a little preachy when explaining to his audience the relative merits of “intelligence” v “judgment”.
Over the days just before the books release (Apr.2018) and in the week after, Comey has taken a fair number of hits from reviewers, cable news commenters, op-ed essayists, and late night TV hosts over the Clinton email episode. The criticism has been much harsher compared to the days following his Senate Intelligence committee hearings last summer and I’m not sure why. In “A Higher Loyalty” Comey does a good job in laying out his case, and poses the somewhat rhetorical question, “what would you have done differently”. As mentioned above, he suggests a number of alternatives, then makes very good arguments against each and every one of them. Of course, Hillary doesn’t agree, and some pollsters tend to support her position. I have a different view. I feel that Clinton is solely responsible for her defeat. She ran a lackluster campaign and proved to be a terrible campaigner on camera. Given Trump’s total lack of experience and horrible behaviors particularly toward women, Clinton should have had at least a 15 point lead going into those final days and thus would have been in a position to withstand the email issue. Instead she and her team made the classic mistake of playing safe, a terrible strategy as evidenced by results in the Midwest. Consequently, Trump was never completely out of the race as he should have been and Clinton has only herself to blame for that.
I think this is an excellent book and I recommend it highly, even for those of you who feel you know it all and don’t have to hear it again. This is more than sound bites and news clips. Read the entire case from beginning to end. It may surprise you.
This book describes Comeys life, his many years in the public eye, service to his country. An impressive background, an ehical man who constantly fought to be fair, remain unbiased. Something he admits to struggling with. His time in the Bush White House, as director appointed by Obama, and then in just the last part of the book, Trump.
He lays out clearly what the role of the FBI must be, a service that to put the public first must remain unbiased. Untied to the Oval office, Obama understood this, Trump clearly didn't. He explains the Clinton emails, how his team thought and the hard decision he had to make. Why he made the decision and proceeded the way he did.
That he finds Trump to not have the necessary character traits to serve as the head of this country, is something many of us feel. From his first strange meeting with Trump, to a wildly inappropriate dinner, he was put in a terrible bind, one he didn't know how to handle. He did make a few catty remarks in describing Trump's physical characteristics, but other then that he was eloquent and stuck to the facts as he saw them.
I quickly gobbled up this book, read it in a day, which I rarely do with books. I found Comey to be credible, fair, and his treatment at the hands of Trump, despicable. His view for our country in the long term is a hopeful one and one in which I wish I could share.
The fun though is when he explains the background of some of his most famous cases. He was the United States Attorney General who indicted her. He was head of the FBI when the Hillary Clinton email investigation was in full swing. Then there was Donald Trump who never seemed to understand that the FBI and the Justice Departments are to keep their distance from the White House. If this was not the case, how would the public trust that investigations of accusations against White House staff had been done correctly. Trump wants everyone to be loyal to him and he dosen't want criticism or advice.
I approached this book with the attitude that it would be work to read. It was anything but as Comey's prose flows effortlessly from the page. If the ending had not been about a so negative presidency, this would have been a fun read. Comey does feel that the American system of government will overcome the Trump years and may even be stronger as a result.
What I enjoyed most about this book, though, was his discourses on integrity and the people and events in his life that contributed to his views on duty and leadership. Whether or not you believe his version of the events leading up to his firing (I do), his philosophy is enlightening and educational.
On the down-side, this book was clearly rushed to press and there are several repetitious passages. All in all, though, it was a well-composed book that provided me with considerable insight into the workings of the modern FBI and how to get along with the current president.
My thanks to the folks at the The History Book Club for giving me the opportunity to read and discuss this and many other fine books.
And his discussion of the leaders he has worked with is framed within an ethic of responsibility and leadership I find resonant with my own experiences (albeit in much less stratospheric contexts). As an example, Comey describes the leadership he sough5 to foster at the FBI:
“We would teach that great leaders are (l) people of integrity and decency; (2) confident enough to be humble; (3) both kind and tough; (4) trans parent; and (5) aware that we all seek meaning in work. We would also teach them that (6) what they say is important, but what they do is far more important, because their people are always watching them. In short, we would demand and develop ethical leaders.” P. 130
There are those who judge Comey and thus his book based on whether they believe he helped or hurt their “team,” whether he had a political agenda. Perhaps he has and has hidden it well. In “A Higher Loyalty,” he addresses this effectively, explaining his reasons for his decisions and acknowledging that others of good will an intelligence may well disagree.
I recommend the book, in the short run for its timely relevance, but in the long run as a thoughtful, honest, and readable discussion on the ethics of power and leadership. We need more ethical leadership, desperately.