James Comey’s new book “A Higher Loyalty” offers four key lessons in leadership

James Comey’s new book is “A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies, and Leadership”—emphasis on the leadership.
James Comey’s new book is “A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies, and Leadership”—emphasis on the leadership.
Image: Reuters/Darren Ornitz
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In the midst of the Twitter attacks by Donald Trump and his unceremonial firing by the US president in 2017, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that in his 30-plus year career, James Comey prosecuted mafia members, worked in the private sector as the head lawyer for defense contractor Lockheed Martin and later for the hedge fund Bridgewater Associates, and served as deputy US attorney general. The man must know a thing or two about being a leader.

So despite finding myself completely disinterested in the Trump-Comey beef, I picked up the former FBI director’s new memoir, A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies, and Leadership. I was excited to find that Trump really doesn’t show up until chapter 12 of 14, and that the book was indeed rife with leadership lessons, on everything from listening and emotional intelligence to team building and the importance of sleep. Here’s a sampling of them:

1. How to be a great listener

The best leaders listen way more than they talk. But listening is more than the passive act of sitting in front of somebody and hearing their words. Active listening requires not only deep concentration, but the parsing of body language “tells,” determining the right questions to ask, and the real-time processing of responses with your existing knowledge. Comey writes:

My marriage has taught me that what I thought of as listening really isn’t listening, either. Like a lot of people, I thought that listening involved sitting silently as someone else talked, and then perceiving what they say. I was wrong. True listening is actually that period of silence and allowing someone’s words to reach your conscious brain, but it also includes something else that’s a little weird: with your posture, your face, and your sounds, you signal to someone, “I want what you have, I need to know what you know, and I want you to keep telling me the things you’re telling me.” Two good friends talking to each other is a stenographer’s worst nightmare. They are talking over each other. When one is speaking formed words, the other is making sounds—“Uh-huh.” “Ooh.” “I know.” “Yup, yup, oh, I’ve seen it, yup. They’ll do that.” They’re listening to each other in a way where each is both pushing information to the other and pulling information out of the other. Push, pull, push, pull. When they are really connecting, it actually runs together—pushpullpushpull. That’s real listening.

2. How to get people to open up

As organizations grow or restructure, it becomes harder to get people to open up, which can impact trust and collaboration. Scott Crabtree, a former Intel engineer and founder of Happy Brain Science, described an exercise his team at Intel used called the Pecha Kucha. The Japanese phrase roughly translates into “chit chat.” Each team member created a 10-slide presentation during which they “could only share things about their lives outside of work.” As FBI director, Comey applied similar techniques to get people to open up:

I worked to build an atmosphere of trust by encouraging leaders to tell the truth about something personal. I asked an entire conference room of FBI senior executives to tell the group something about themselves that would surprise the room, quickly adding, to much laughter, that it should ideally not be something that would jeopardize their security clearance. Weeks later, I went around the room and asked them to tell me their favorite Halloween candy as a child. In November, I requested their favorite food at Thanksgiving, and, in December, their favorite gift of the holiday season. Of course, these could be seen as childish techniques, the kind a teacher might urge on an elementary school classroom, but children open up and trust one another in amazing ways. We were in need of a little more childlike behavior in our lives, because children tend to tell each other the truth more often than adults do.

3. Don’t sleep on sleep

If you’re Arianna Huffington or a Seattle Seahawk, sleep is a high priority. But surely hunting down mobsters and cyberterrorists (or reviewing thousands of Hillary Clinton’s emails) excludes you from this wellness imperative? Au contraire, mon frère, says Comey:

When someone is tired, their judgment can be impaired. When they are dragging, it is hard for them to float above a problem and picture themselves and the problem in another place and time, so I gave them another directive: sleep. When you sleep, your brain is actually engaged in the neurochemical process of judgment. It is mapping connections and finding meaning among all the data you took in during the day. Tired people tend not to have the best judgment. And it is not as hard as you may think, I added with a smile. “You can multitask. You can sleep with people you love.”

4. The subtle power of emotional intelligence

Emotional intelligence is the ability to truly put yourself in someone else’s shoes. Comey shares an anecdote about how during his FBI installation ceremony, then-president Barack Obama had the foresight to exclude the boyfriends of Comey’s daughters from the commemorative photograph, just in case:

[My wife] Patrice and our kids were, of course, in attendance at the ceremony. My two older girls had brought their serious boyfriends along, and we all joined the president for a commemorative photo of the occasion. Remembering what he had learned about our group during the introductions, President Obama smiled for the first photo and then, gesturing toward the boyfriends, said, “Hey, why don’t we take another without the guys. You know, just in case.” He was playful as he said it, and he did it in a way that no one was offended. But I could tell he was also being thoughtful in a way few leaders are. What if things didn’t work out with one or the other of these guys? Would having them in a picture with the president ruin it for the Comeys forever? So Obama gestured the boyfriends out of the shot, to our great amusement. (I’m happy to report that one of the guys is now our son-in-law and the other soon will be.)