Book notes: A Higher Loyalty by James Comey

A Higher Loyalty by James Comey book summary notes.

A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies, and Leadership by James Comey

Synopsis: “In his audiobook, A Higher Loyalty, former FBI director James Comey shares his never-before-told experiences from some of the highest stakes situations of his career in the past two decades of American government, exploring what good, ethical leadership looks like and how it drives sound decisions. His journey provides an unprecedented entry into the corridors of power and a remarkable 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 US attorney for the Southern District of New York and the US 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 and overseeing the Hillary Clinton email 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.” -Audible

Opening thoughts:

Just like the book I read last month Fire and Fury, this book was recommended by a friend and fellow book aficionado. I was about to put it into my Wish List, but the book had not even released yet. After finishing Fire and Fury, it really set the stage as well as my excitement for this book. Having been very recently published, I appreciate that the work is timely and relevant to our current politics in this country.

Key notes:

  • If there ever was a time when an examination of ethical leadership would be useful, is now
  • Ethical leaders do not run from criticism, especially self-criticism
    • And they don’t hide from uncomfortable questions, they welcome them
  • The important thing is that we learn from them and hopefully do better
  • Doubt is wisdom. And the older he gets, the less he knows for certain
    • Those leaders who never think they are wrong, who never question their judgments or perspectives, are a danger to the organizations and people they lead
  • Ethical leaders lead by seeing beyond the short term, beyond the urgent, and take every action with a view toward lasting values
  • Ethical leadership is also about understanding the truth about humans and our need for meaning
    • This 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
    • As a leadership principle, if leaders don’t tell the truth, or won’t hear the truth from others, they cannot make good decisions, they cannot themselves improve, and they cannot inspire trust among those who follow them
  • The higher loyalty is to lasting values, most important the truth
  • His traumatic, childhood experience was also in its own way also an incredible gift
    • Believing, knowing in his mind, that he was going to die and then surviving, made life seem like a precious, delicate miracle
    • He tells young people to try this exercise where they imagine they are about to die and ask themselves, “who do you want to have been?”
      • He hopes that some of them decide to have been people who use their abilities to help those who needed it, the weak, the struggling, the frightened, the bullied
      • Standing for something, making a difference. That is true wealth.
  • Evil has an ordinary face. It laughs, it cries, it reflects, it rationalizes, it makes great pasta (In regards to meeting a mass murderer in person

Courage is fire and bullying is smoke.” -Benjamin Israeli

  • His supervisor at the grocery store showed him great leadership
    • He admired him for his high standards of excellence, ability to make things fun, and his huge grace and mercy for when James made a couple of big mistakes
  • From an outsider, being picked on was very painful
    • But in hindsight, it made him a better judge of people
  • Surviving a bully requires constant learning and adaptation
    • Which is why bullies are so powerful because it’s so much easier to be a follower, to go with the crowd, to just blend in

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.” -Ralph Waldo Emerson

  • We all have a tendency to surrender our moral authority to the group. To still our own voices and assume that the group will handle whatever difficult issue we face
    • We imagine that the group is making thoughtful decisions, and if the crowd is moving in a certain direction, we follow
    • As if the group is some moral entity other than ourselves
    • Abdicating responsibility 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
  • Being an outsider and being picked on was very painful, but it made him a better person
    • It instilled in him a lifelong hatred for bullies and sympathy for their victims
  • One of his past bosses whom he looked up to didn’t care much what misinformed people said about her
    • She put the interest of the team and the important job they had to do higher than her own feelings and worries about reputation
  • He owes his entire career and leadership to Helen Fahey’s confidence, not just in him, but in herself
    • She glowed in the achievements of her people, who loved her back, and they blossomed in her glow. She had the confidence to be humble

Readers note: definitely crying right now in my car as he recounts his wife’s strength when their newborn son died from an infection. He claimed she had the wisdom to bring their family together clothing their daughters to say goodbye to him one last time.

  • She believed that she had to make something good come from her loss
    • That good would be saving other mothers’ babies by forcing all doctors to test for his pregnancy bacteria infection
  • 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
  • People must fear the consequences of lying in the justice system or the system can’t work
  • He was always intentional and helping his team members find the joy in their work
    • Laughter is the outward manifestation of joy, so he believes if he’s doing it right, and helping people connect the meaning and joy in their work, there will be laughter in the workplace
    • Laughter is also a good indication people aren’t taking themselves too seriously
    • The only way to get through this high tension job is to intentionally inject some fun and joy into it
  • Confirmation bias: We crave information consistent with what we already believe
    • We seek out and focus on facts and arguments that support our beliefs
    • Worse, when we are trapped in confirmation bias, we may not consciously perceive facts that challenge us and are inconsistent with what we have least concluded
  • Doubt is not weakness, it is wisdom

“The surpreme quality for leadership is unquestionably integrity. Without it, no real success is possible.” -Dwight D. Eisenhower

  • The FBI and its Director cannot be close with the president
  • He admired President Obama’s thoughtful remark as displaying a sense of humor, insight, and an ability to connect with an audience, which he would later come to appreciate in the president even more
  • A sense of humor, in particular, strikes him as an important indicator, or tell, about someone’s ego
    • Having a balance of confidence and humility is essential to effective leadership
    • Laughing in a genuine way requires a certain level of confidence because we all look a little silly laughing. That makes us vulnerable, a state insecure people fear
    • Laughing is also frequently in appreciation of others who have said something that is funny
  •  He discovered that the people who made up the FBI were very diverse. What drives them all is a palpable sense of mission
    • They helped him rewrite the organization’s mission statement to match what was already written on their hearts
      • They exist to “protect the American people and uphold the Constitution of the United States”
    • However, he discovered the frightening trend that 83% of the special agents were white. He saw this as a weakness in their effectiveness as the country grew more diverse, which he thought was a wonderful thing
  • He wanted the FBI to teach that great leaders are:
    1. People of integrity and decency
    2. Confident enough to be humble
    3. Both kind and tough
    4. Transparent
    5. Aware that we all seek meaning in work
    6. What they say is important, but what they do is far more important because their people are always watching them
  • He told every employee working there he had five expectations:
    1. That they would enjoy their work. They were doing work with moral content, and doing it should be a source of great joy
    2. He expected that they would treat all people with respect and dignity without regard to position or station in life
    3. He expected that they would protect the institution’s reservoir of trust and credibility that makes possible all their work
    4. He expected that they work hard because they owed that to the taxpayer
    5. He expected that they would fight for balance in their lives
  • Because the FBI agents had great power to do good but also harm, he needed sound judgment, which is the ability to orbit a problem and see it well, including through the eyes of people very different from you
    • Although he told them he wasn’t sure where it came from, he knew the ability to exercise judgment was protected by getting away from the work and refreshing yourself
    • That the physical difference made perspective possible when they returned to work
  • He ordered them to love somebody. It’s the right thing to do and it’s also good for you
    • There is no “getting back” to loving someone
    • He said in this line of work you will learn that bad things happen to good people. You will turn to “get back” and they will be gone
  • He also ordered them to sleep
    • When you sleep, your brain is actually engaged in the neural chemical process of judgment
    • It is mapping connections and finding meaning among all the data you took in during the day
  • The best leaders are both kind and tough. Without both people don’t thrive
  • There is a right time and a right way for every conversation
  • Effective leaders almost never need to yell
    • The leader will have created an environment where disappointing him causes his people to be disappointed in themselves
    • Guilt and affection are far more powerful motivators than fear 
    • A leader who screams at his employees or belittles them will not attract and retain great talent over the long-term
  • He talks about LeBron James a lot to his people because he’s not only the greatest player in basketball right now, but he’s also one of the hardest working
    • Despite being the greatest player today, he doesn’t measure himself against other players, he measures himself against himself 
  • It is painful to stare openly at ourselves, but it is the only way to change the future
    • By acknowledging our issues, we have the best chance of resolving them in a healthy way
    • Buried pain never gets better with age
      • By remembering and being open and truthful about our mistakes, we reduce the chance we will repeat them

“The only thing new in the world is the history don’t know” -Harry Truman

  • True listening is actually that period of silence in allowing someone’s words to reach your conscious brain
    • But it also includes something that’s a little weird with your posture and face and sounds
    • It is hard for leaders to listen well because it requires us to be vulnerable, to risk our superior position
      • President Obama was not only a great listener, he was also more than willing to discuss things that people weren’t sure he wanted to hear
  • Speaking uphill takes courage. It takes overcoming a universal human affection: The imposter complex
    • All of us labor, to one degree or another, under the belief that if other people really knew us, if they knew us the way we know ourselves, they would think less of us
    • The fear that by showing ourselves we will be exposed as the flawed person we are
    • If you don’t have this in some measure, you are an incredible jerk and should stop listening immediately
  • Children tend to tell each other the truth more often than adults do
    • Children open up and trust one another in amazing ways
    • We are in need of a little more childlike behavior in our lives

Readers note: This account of the Clinton email investigation is unbelievable. He had to make such a tough decision, but I really respect that he chose the route of integrity and not concealing over holding back and trying to not affect the election. It was an impossible decision, but it seemed like he made the right choice given the information he had and the values he stood by.


Readers note: Wow. This last meeting with President Obama’s was very powerful and emotional. I’m literally tearing up. The president said no matter what happened in the last year, he still believed Comey had integrity and ability. Its almost impossible to not respect a man like President Obama when he can say something so meaningful just at the right moment to someone in pain, and even when that person’s actions was a detriment to his own agenda.

  • Intelligence is the ability to solve a problem, decipher a riddle, master a set of facts
    • Judgment is the ability to orbit a problem or 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
  • The heart of emotional intelligence: The ability to imagine the feelings and perspectives of another me
    • Most of us can develop emotional intelligence with practice. However, he got the sense that no one ever taught this to Donald Trump
  • He is pretty sure that President Trump wasn’t familiar with the proverb, “the wicked flee when no man pursueth” in regards to him constantly defending against allegations, always unprompted
  • Ethical leaders never ask for loyalty
    • And here Donald Trump was asking for it
    • Those leading through fear, like a mafia boss, required loyalty
  • Because he couldn’t trust Donald Trump to re-count meeting accurately and that he lacked integrity, James wrote a memo of their meeting and made two copies, one for chief leadership in the FBI and one for his personal records
  • He wanted Trump to succeed as president, not because of a political bias, but because he would want any president to succeed
    • He was more sad, not angry because Trump did not seem to have experienced tough and kind leadership

Readers note: Right now we are at the part where he is giving his testimony before congress. This is a great time to look at this video and watch his account as he tries to do it without notes and speak from the heart.

  • Congresspeople on both sides of the aisle should ask themselves: to what or to whom they hold a higher loyalty? To partisan interest or to the pillars of democracy?
    • Their silence is complicity, it is a choice
  • Policies come and go, Supreme Court justices come and go. But the core of our nation is the commitment to a set of shared values that began with George Washington, to restraint and integrity, and balance and transparency, and truth
    • If that slides away from us, only a fool will be consoled by a tax cut or a different immigration policy

Closing thoughts:

Such a powerful book. James Comey did such an amazing job with this book, recounting his interaction with three presidents and the work he has done with a commitment to his values.

From start to finish, the reader gets a beautiful narrative that hammers home the point about what ethical leadership is and what it isn’t. It really sets the stage for explaining what happened in recent events and all of the challenges he’s had to face in the past few years in the public spotlight.

This was a great follow up to Fire and Fury as it gives a very different perspective on part of Trump’s presidency. I appreciate that the picture James Comey painted of Donald Trump, while slightly different, was still fundamentally consistent with many other accounts of what type of person he is. He is a man who leads based on shakey foundations and it won’t be a surprise when his presidency collapses.

I will say I am a huge fan of James Comey after reading this book. Not sure what he’s up to right now, but I hope he continues to be a true ethical leader in service to our country. We definitely need more leaders like him who truly lead with truth and integrity.

Nutshell: James Comey explains what true ethical leadership is through his experience working in the U.S. government.

Rating: 4.5/5

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