Book Report: A Higher Loyalty

a-higher-loyalty“In that moment, something hit me: It’s just us. I always thought that in this place there would be somebody better, but it’s just this group of people – including me – trying to figure stuff out. I didn’t mean that as an insult to any of the participants, who were talented people. But we were just people, ordinary people in extraordinary roles in challenging times. I’m not sure what I had expected, but I met the top of the pyramid and it was just us, which was both comforting and a bit frightening.” (A Higher Loyalty)

Title: A Higher Loyalty – Truth, Lies, and Leadership

Author: James Comey

Publisher: Flatiron Books

Publication Date: 2018

Origin/Intention: I received A Higher Loyalty as an unexpected gift – complete with a thoughtful inscription – from my good friend (and longtime soccer teammate) Ruben. We’ve periodically discussed politics and global affairs, and what larger affair is there right now than the whole Trump-Russia thing? In reading A Higher Loyalty, I intended to gain ever-more insight into leadership, particularly under trying circumstances.

Summary: In A Higher Loyalty, former FBI Director James Comey revisits the myriad events and diverse people that shaped his personal character and world view, and which led him to play an unexpectedly large role in the events surrounding the 2016 US presidential election.

Throughout, he pauses to provide insightful commentary and observations on different leadership qualities, organizational characteristics, approaches to decision-making, and much more.

While it’s clear by simple contrast and occasional commentary that he doesn’t look favourably upon the current administration, A Higher Loyalty doesn’t dive into pettiness or vindictiveness. Rather, Comey provides factual behind-the-scenes access to his encounters, personal insight into his decision-making considerations, and exposition of his concerns as he deals with the incoming administration.

Only at the very end does Comey venture into political commentary, and even then he does so in a pretty non-partisan manner, almost pleading with readers to take a stand against what he sees as something very wrong: “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 know there are men and women of good conscience in the United States Congress on both sides of the aisle who understand this. But not enough of them are speaking out. They must ask themselves to what, or to whom, they hold a higher loyalty: to partisan interests or to the pillars or democracy? Their silence is complicity – it is a choice – and somewhere deep down they must know that.”

My Take: I approached A Higher Loyalty with eyes wide open, understanding that one purpose of the book is to let Comey craft an image of himself that’s more complete – and presumably more positive – than what’s come across in the media in the last year.

I really had no idea who James Comey is as a person, or what roles he’s played in the US government over the years, so it came as a genuine surprise to see that he’s been involved in many headline-grabbing incidents – from the prosecution of Martha Stewart, to the CIA’s torture scandal, to helping take down the New York mafia.

At one point fairly late in the book, Comey says, “Much of life is ambiguous and subject to interpretation, but there are things that are objectively, verifiably either true or false.”; putting politics aside, it’s verifiably true that James Comey has had a long, distinguished, successful, impactful career under several different presidential administrations, representing both major US political parties. That cannot be argued.

However, imagining myself looking back in time a few years from now, my biggest takeaway from A Higher Loyalty will be the book’s many leadership lessons. To whit:

“As I’d seen from other leaders, being confident enough to be humble – comfortable in your own skin – is at the heart of effective leadership. That humility makes a whole lot of things possible, none more important than a single, humble question: ‘What am I missing?’ Good leaders constantly worry about their limited ability to see. To rise above those limitations, good leaders exercise judgment, which is a different thing from intelligence. Intelligence is the ability to solve a problem, to decipher a riddle, to master a set of facts. Judgment is the ability to orbit a problem or a set of facts and see it as it might be seen through other eyes, by observers with different biases, motives, and backgrounds. It is also the ability to take a set of facts and move it in place and time – perhaps to a hearing room or a courtroom, months or years in the future – or to the newsroom of a major publication or the boardroom of a competitor. Intelligence is the ability to collect and report what those documents and witnesses say; judgment is the ability to say what those same facts mean and what effect they will have on other audiences.”

And that’s just one of many. Throughout A Higher Loyalty, Comey describes examples of good and bad leadership that he’s seen, experienced, and exhibited throughout the years, displaying a keen sense of self-awareness and thoughtful insight. Through his experiences, we can all learn.

Read This Book If: …You want to learn more about effective, ethical leadership (or if you’re addicted to all scandals Trump-related – and I hope you’re not, because that must be exhausting).

Notes and Quotes

  • p16, speaking in admiration of a local counsel with whom Comey worked a legal case: “I saw in Dick kindness and toughness, confidence and humility.”
  • p21, partially explaining how Giuliani turned into a total nutbag: “Though Giuliani’s confidence was exciting, it fed an imperial style that severely narrowed the circle of people with whom he interacted, something I didn’t realize was dangerous until much later: a leader needs the truth, but an emperor does not consistently hear it from his underlings.”

“A leader needs the truth, but an emperor does not consistently hear it from his underlings.”

  • p27 is kind’ve unnerving, but I think important: “I wish I could say I felt something different when I was in the presence of a mass-murderer, handing me a cup of espresso in an empty convent. In the movies, some foreboding music might play in the background or the light might dim. But there was none of that. Evil has an ordinary face. It laughs, it cries, it deflects, it rationalizes, it makes great pasta.”

“Evil has an ordinary face.”

  • p38, quoting Ralph Waldo Emerson: “It is easy in the world to live after the world’s opinion; it is easy in solitude to live after our own; but the great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude.”

“The great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson

  • One of my great fears is that I’ll one day be silent when I need to speak up, p39: “In the face of the herd, our tendency is to go quiet and let the group’s brain and soul handle things. Of course, the group has no brain or soul separate from each of ours. But by imagining that the group has these centers, we abdicate responsibility, which allows all groups to be hijacked by the loudest voice, the person who knows how brainless groups really are and uses that to his advantage.”
  • In the margin of p46, I’ve scrawled “Black Box Thinking, next to where Comey tells the story of how he and his wife had a soon who died of a treatable condition because there wasn’t complete adoption of a particular medical test; it was very reminiscent of some if the issues outlined in Syed’s book
  • p52: “I guess what concerned me most about the small lie was the danger of it becoming a habit. I’ve seen many times over the years how liars get so good at lying, they lose the ability to distinguish between what’s true and what’s not. They surround themselves with other liars. The circle becomes closer and smaller, with those unwilling to surrender their moral compasses pushed out and those willing to tolerate deceit brought closer to the center of power.”
  • p53: “The danger in every organization, especially one built around hierarchy, is that you create an environment that cuts of dissenting views and discourages honest feedback. That can quickly lead to a culture of delusion and deception. And in a leader, the tendency of too much confidence to swamp humility can lead to a dangerous self-indulgence at the expense of others.”

“The danger in every organization, especially one built around hierarchy, is that you create an environment that cuts of dissenting views and discourages honest feedback. That can quickly lead to a culture of delusion and deception.”

  • p54 has a great metaphor about organizational trust and credibility: “It would happen because of those who had gone before them and, through hundreds of promises made and kept, and hundreds of truths told and errors instantly corrected, built something for them. I called it a reservoir. I told them it was a reservoir of trust and credibility built for you and filled for you by people you never knew, by those who are long gone…I would explain that the problem with reservoirs is that they take a very long time to fill but they can be drained by one hole in the dam. The actions of one person can destroy what it took hundreds of people years to build.”
  • p68…friggin’ love this snippet, about Comey’s first meeting with the President (George W. Bush) during a daily terrorism threat briefing: “In that moment, something hit me: It’s just us. I always thought that in this place there would be somebody better, but it’s just this group of people – including me – trying to figure stuff out. I didn’t mean that as an insult to any of the participants, who were talented people. But we were just people, ordinary people in extraordinary roles in challenging times. I’m not sure what I had expected, but I met the top of the pyramid and it was just us, which was both comforting and a bit frightening.”
  • p98, about drafting a classified memo that would put on record a bunch of shady stuff the White House had been doing: “It was a bit of a jerk move, because it created a permanent and complete record of all the ways they had been out of bounds, but the time to be a bit of a jerk was now.”

“It was a bit of a jerk move…but the time to be a bit of a jerk was now.”

  • Ever since I first saw this Mark Twain quote a couple of years ago, I’ve kept it in mind…p100: “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you in trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.”

“It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you in trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.” – Mark Twain

  • p104, discussing the CIA’s rampant use of torture during the war on terror, and their mistaken belief that torture was a reliable way to acquire useful information: “They were driven by one of the most powerful and disconcerting forces in human nature – confirmation bias. Our brains have evolved to crave information consistent with what we already believe. We seek out and focus on facts and arguments that support our beliefs. More worrisome, when we are trapped in confirmation bias, we may not consciously perceive facts that challenge us, that are inconsistent with what we have already concluded. In a complicated, changing, and integrated world, our confirmation bias makes us very difficult people. We simply can’t change our minds.”
  • p104: “Of course, in a healthy organization, doubt is not a 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.”

“Of course, in a healthy organization, doubt is not a 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.”

  • p105: “Decisions have to be made, often quickly, even the hardest decisions. And the hardest ones always seem to need to be made the fastest and on the least information. But those decisions must be made with the recognition that they could be wrong. That humility leaves the leader open to better information until the last possible moment.”
  • p105, quoting George Washington in his farewell address, which goes very much against today’s expectation that leaders refuse to show any doubt or even to entertain that they are fallible: “Though, in reviewing the incidents of my administration, I am unconscious of any intentional error, I am nevertheless too sensible of my defects not to think it probable that I may have committed many errors. Whatever they may be, I fervently beseech the Almighty to avert or mitigate the evils to which they may tend. I shall also carry with me the hope that my country will never cease to view them with indulgence; and that, after forty-five years of my life dedicated to its service with an upright zeal, the faults of incompetent abilities will be consigned to oblivion, as myself must soon be to the mansions of rest.”
  • p115, a man of principle: “No policy changes were made. CIA enhanced interrogation techniques could continue. Human beings in the custody of the United States government would be subjected to harsh and horrible treatment…I left government service two months later. I was never going to return.” Related fact: a bunch of detainees died in US custody! Some froze to death, some starved. You know, not torture at all.
  • p123, speaking of Obama’s sense of humor, insight, and ability to connect with an audience: “These are all qualities that are indispensable in good leaders. A sense of humor in particular strikes me as an important indicator – or ‘tell’ – about someone’s ego. Having a balance of confidence and humility is essential to effective leadership.”
  • p128: “In my first fifteen months as director, I visited all fifty-six FBI offices in the United States and more than a dozen overseas. I went there to listen and learn about the people of the FBI. What are they like, what do they want, what do they need?”
  • p129: “My travels around the country and the world taught me something else: the FBI’s leaders weren’t good enough. In the private sector, I had learned that the best organizations obsess over leadership talent – they hunt for it, test it, train it, and make it part of every conversation.”

“The best organizations obsess over leadership talent – they hunt for it, test it, train it, and make it part of every conversation.”

  • p130, again on the importance of listening to the team: “I discovered from listening to the employees that we had some great leaders, some crappy leaders, and everything in between. That was simply not acceptable for an organization as important as the FBI.”
  • p130: “We would teach that great leaders are (1) people of integrity and decency; (2) confident enough to be humble; (3) both kind and tough; (4) transparent; 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.”
  • p131 lists Comey’s five expectations of FBI employees, and I think they apply well to any organization: “[1] 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. [2] I expected they would treat all people with respect and dignity, without regard to position or station in life. [3] I expected they would protect the institution’s reservoir of trust and credibility that makes possible all their work. [4] I expected they would work hard, because they owe that to the taxpayer. [5] I expected they would fight for balance in their lives.”
  • p133: “No matter how I felt inside, I tried to walk with a bounce in y step, standing straight and smiling at those I passed. The way I looked at it, when the director of the FBI stepped into that cafeteria, hundreds of pairs of eyes turned to look, and every pair was asking, in some form, the same question: ‘So, how are we doing?’ The answer from my face and posture had to be: ‘We’re doing just fine. It’s all going to be okay.'”
  • p134, speaking of his time in the private sector: “I learned there that I could sometimes be a selfish and poor leader. Most often, that was because I was hesitant to tell people who worked for me when I thought they needed to improve. The best leaders are both kind and tough. Without both, people don’t thrive. Bridgewater’s founder, Ray Dalio, believes there is no such thing as negative feedback or positive feedback; there is only accurate feedback, and we should care enough about each other to be accurate.”
  • p136 – man, I really need to read Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letter from Birmingham Jail.
  • p137, again reminiscent of confirmation bias and a lack of challenging oneself: “What they lacked was meaningful testing of their assumptions. There was nothing to check them. It is painful to stare openly at ourselves, but it is the only way to change the future.”

“It is painful to stare openly at ourselves, but it is the only way to change the future.”

  • p146: “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. To them, listening is a period of silence, where someone else talks before you say what you were planning to say all along. We see these exchanges in nearly every ‘debate’ on television. It’s the candidate sitting on the stool, waiting for the lights to go on, then standing up and saying their prearranged talking points, while someone else says their prearranged talking points back at them. It’s just words reaching ears, but not getting into a conscious brain. That’s the ‘Washington listen.'”
  • p155: “One of my weaknesses, especially when I was younger, was overconfidence, a tendency to reach a conclusion quickly and cling to it too tightly. Or to make a decision too quickly, telling myself I was being ‘decisive,’ when I was really being impulsive and arrogant. I have struggled with it my entire life. But in Obama, I had also seen the humility to learn from others, which doesn’t often exist alongside overconfidence.”
  • p206: “To avoid being paralyzed and crushed by second-guessing, I use a rule of thumb: if the criticism is coming from a person I know to be thoughtful, I pay close attention to it. I even pay attention to anonymous critics and even savage partisans if their logic or factual presentation tell me they may be seeing something I missed. The rest of the crazies, and there were are a lot of crazies, I ignore.”

“To avoid being paralyzed and crushed by second-guessing, I use a rule of thumb: if the criticism is coming from a person I know to be thoughtful, I pay close attention to it. I even pay attention to anonymous critics and even savage partisans if their logic or factual presentation tell me they may be seeing something I missed. The rest of the crazies…I ignore.”

  • p217, it’s the fundamental attribution error! “I long ago learned that people tend to assume that you act and think the way they would in a similar situation.”
  • p219: “As I’d seen from other leaders, being confident enough to be humble – comfortable in your own skin – is at the heart of effective leadership. That humility makes a whole lot of things possible, none more important than a single, humble question: ‘What am I missing?’ Good leaders constantly worry about their limited ability to see.”
  • p219 continues: “To rise above those limitations, good leaders exercise judgment, which is a different thing from intelligence. Intelligence is the ability to solve a problem, to decipher a riddle, to master a set of facts. Judgment is the ability to orbit a problem or a set of facts and see it as it might be seen through other eyes, by observers with different biases, motives, and backgrounds. It is also the ability to take a set of facts and move it in place and time – perhaps to a hearing room or a courtroom, months or years in the future – or to the newsroom of a major publication or the boardroom of a competitor. Intelligence is the ability to collect and report what those documents and witnesses say; judgment is the ability to say what those same facts mean and what effect they will have on other audiences.”
  • p228: “Much of life is ambiguous and subject to interpretation, but there are things that are objectively, verifiably either true or false. It was simply not true that the biggest crowd in history attended the inauguration, as he asserted, or even that Trump’s crowd was bigger than Obama’s. To say otherwise is not to offer an opinion, a view, a perspective. It was a lie.”
  • p239: “After all, I can only experience the world through me. That tempts all of us to believe everything we think, everything we hear, everything we see, is all about us. I think we all do this. But a leader constantly has to train him- or herself to think otherwise. This is an important insight for a leader, in two respects. First, it allows you to relax a bit, secure in the knowledge that you aren’t that important. Second, knowing people aren’t always focused on you should drive you to try to imagine what they are focused on. I see this as the heart of emotional intelligence, the ability to imagine the feelings and perspective of another ‘me.'”
  • I hope I pass this test, if I’m ever in a similar position, p249: “As Trump kept talking, I could see he was convincing himself of this story line and clearly thought he was convincing us, too… In fact, by this point, I had dealt with the president enough to have something of a read on what Trump was doing. His assertions about what ‘everyone thinks’ and what is ‘obviously true’ wash over you, unchallenged, as they did at our dinner, because he never stops talking. As a result, Trump pulls all those present with him into a silent circle of assent. With him talking a mile a minute, with no spot for others to jump into the conversation, I could see how easily everyone in the room could become a coconspirator to his preferred set of facts, or delusions. But as Martin Luther once said, ‘You are not only responsible for what you say, but also for what you do not say.'”

“As Martin Luther once said, ‘You are not only responsible for what you say, but also for what you do not say.'”

  • p262, with another example of great leadership from Comey: “Although the recruiting event was in the evening, I went early enough to have time to visit the FBI’s Los Angeles field office. I was committed to walking around FBI offices everywhere, floor by floor and cubicle by cubicle, meeting every employee and shaking every hand. It was worth the effort because I could tell it meant a lot to our people to have the director thank them personally. In a big organization like the FBI, with offices around the country and the world, it helps to remind people that you appreciate the hard work they do. That you care about them, not just professionally, but about them – and their families. Every time I traveled, I carved out hours to visit the field offices to meet the amazing people that staffed them.”
  • p264, how surreal this must’ve been: “I was fired, effective immediately, by the president who had repeatedly praised me and asked me to stay, based on a recommendation from the deputy attorney general, who had praised me as a great leader, a recommendation accepted by the attorney general, who was both recused from all Russia-related matters and who, according to President Trump at our dinner, thought I was great.”
  • p275: “This president is unethical, and untethered to truth and institutional values. His leadership is transactional, ego driven, and about personal loyalty. We are fortunate some ethical leaders have chosen to serve and to stay at senior levels of government, but they cannot prevent all of the damage from the forest fire that is the Trump presidency. Their task is to try to contain it.”
  • p274, imploring the reader: “I’ve said this earlier but it’s worth repeating: close your eyes and imagine these same voices [conservative commentators] 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.”
  • p275: “I know there are men and women of good conscience in the United States Congress on both sides of the aisle who understand this. But not enough of them are speaking out. They must ask themselves to what, or to whom, they hold a higher loyalty: to partisan interests or to the pillars or democracy? Their silence is complicity – it is a choice – and somewhere deep down they must know that.”

Lee Brooks is the founder of Cromulent Marketing, a boutique marketing agency specializing in crafting messaging, creating content, and managing public relations for B2B technology companies.

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Posted in Books, Leadership
One comment on “Book Report: A Higher Loyalty
  1. […] quote from Warren Buffett, on p296, reminded me of the reservoir metaphor that James Comey used in A Higher Loyalty: “It takes twenty years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin […]

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