Where does James Comey’s “A Higher Loyalty” fit in Our Leadership Conversation?

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“The mixture of truth and falsehood is enormously more intoxicating than pure falsehood.” — Paul Valéry

Ethical leadership.

The two words above seem organic partners in the scope of a role, but frequently don’t coincide. Comey’s exploration into the topic is couched in his experience across three presidential administrations as United States Attorney, Deputy Attorney General, FBI Director. In those separate administrations and positions, he took lessons in leadership from supervisors, outsiders, and most significantly, his wife.

The work’s ubiquitous theme gets taken up by the Dwight D. Eisenhower line on page 117:

“The supreme quality for leadership is unquestionably integrity. Without it, no real success is possible, whether it is on a section gang, a football field, in an army, or in an office.”

Integrity; shorthand for an individual’s capacity to tell and maintain the truth. To be people of their word, to fulfill promises and adhere to codes of behavior. To protect the “reservoir of trust” Americans had in their institutions. Integrity.

Without an ounce of varnish, Comey shows where that expectation fell short in figures in government, nongovernmental figures, and himself. How best to judge all of that he leaves to us, but his resounding message throughout the book is: integrity in leadership — across all sectors — needs a reboot. Not for a sense of nostalgia, nor for a wistful imagining of the US as compared to somewhere else. Comey’s assertion, rather, we urgently need renewed integrity everywhere because without it our institutions collapse, reality is questioned, leading to the reduction of the value of the country as a whole. If every statement, every platform, every justification is a lie, who can be trusted? Noone.

Comey’s second exhortation is that we expect these qualities in all our leaders. Not the sort of leaders who have taken to cleaning up their profiles strewn carelessly across the internet in order to reduce public relations risk. Rather, the former FBI director holds forth we ought to expect leadership who had erred on the side of too much caution in the course of their lives. Clearly, to many, this would be a bridge too far. The suggestion too grandiose for any who arrived at their current status by overinflating qualifications for the purposes of advancement. However, ‘leadership’ is primed for taking on a different flavor. Our decadence and derailment owe much to the current crop using web crawler apps to scrub their digital footprints across time. The author says in his text: words matter, titles matter, truth matters. In the disposal of validating expertise, or preparation, or training, or worse — claiming these don’t matter — we invite these webs of fabrications. The dark fantasy of hyperbolic self-promotion leads directly to the magical realism of imagined competence.

“Everyone lies at some point in their life. The important questions are where, about what, and how often?” asks Comey depicting the Martha Stewart insider trading case. Fortunately, Thomas Jefferson (pg.51) had a maxim on exactly this:

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Thomas Jefferson. Credit: History.com

“He who permits himself to tell a lie once, finds it much easier to do it a second and third time, till at length it becomes habitual; he tells lies without attending to it, and truths without the world’s believing him. The falsehood of the tongue leads to that of the heart, and in time depraves all its good dispositions.”

‘A Higher Loyalty’ fits into our leadership discussion, then, because it proscribes a future state of achievable integrity, provided we require accountability. That QA/QC process must be universal — in family, work, media, etc. — as DDE notes above: it is the primary characteristic for success in leadership. Successful leadership will carry the day because, in all things, leadership matters.

Leadership is hard. If it was easy, everyone would do it.

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