Entrepreneurs, Take A Leadership Lesson From Comey’s Difficult Choice

Last week brought the spectacle of senators, mainly Democrats, grilling FBI Director James Comey for four hours, and last night President Trump fired him summarily. The cause in both cases was Comey’s decision to inform Congress on the eve of the 2016 election that the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s private email server had been re-opened due to new evidence. Many Democrats believe this revelation changed the outcome of the election. Mrs. Clinton made that argument last week. Nate Silver, a highly-respected pollster, agrees.

Comey defended his decision staunchly. He said his paramount objective was to keep the FBI out of politics, meaning to avoid actions that would favor one group of politicians over another. Common sense shows why this is important: we need the top U.S. police force to focus entirely on enforcing the law as interpreted by the courts. It would be a disaster if the FBI were to become captive to a group of politicians as an instrument to maintain and enhance their power, as happens frequently elsewhere in the world. And history shows why this is a sensitive issue. J. Edgar Hoover, who led the FBI for 48 years, is often accused of compiling files on U.S. politicians that gave him leverage on their decisions. In 1972 a very senior FBI executive (“Deep Throat”) leaked information to the press which led to the impeachment of President Nixon.

Comey also pointed out that he faced a decision between two bad options: disclosing the re-opened investigation, which he characterized as a “very bad” option, and concealing it, which he characterized as “catastrophic”. He chose to disclose. On October 28, 2016, when Comey made the decision, he did not know if the new emails would show that Mrs. Clinton should be indicted (or impeached, if she became President), and he did not know if revealing the re-opened investigation would cause her to lose the election. If Clinton had won the election, then the impact of the disclosure on the election would have been minimal. If she had won and the new emails led to indictment/impeachment, then disclosure meant U.S. voters would have been fully informed when they elected her. As it turned out, the new emails were benign, Clinton lost the election, and Comey stands accused of having influenced the outcome. That was the “very bad” outcome.

If Comey had concealed the investigation and Mrs. Clinton had won the election, he ran the risk that the new emails would become the basis for indictment/impeachment of a president recently elected by citizens who did not know that she was again under investigation. This might have led to a major political crisis and a huge loss of trust for the FBI. I suspect this is roughly what Mr. Comey envisioned as the “catastrophic” outcome.

And news of the investigation might have leaked, as is alleged to have happened. If the news leaked, then the attempt to conceal would be useless, and the leak would become a media circus and further politicize the investigation.

Comey had to chose between two options for which the likely outcome was highly uncertain in both cases. He chose the option for which the worst outcome was the least bad. This is a well-recognized risk management strategy for which game theorists have a name: “minimax”.

Politicians, narcissistic tribe that they are, have focused mainly on how Comey’s decision affects them. The Democrats object that Comey’s decision [may have] cost them the White House. President Trump first took the opportunity to fire a Twitter-jab at Mrs. Clinton, saying “FBI Director Comey was the best thing that ever happened to Hillary Clinton in that he gave her a free pass for many bad deeds!” He then fired Comey, and many such as Senators Schumer and Leahy have speculated that the FBI’s investigation of links between the Trump campaign and Russia was a major motivation.

Business leaders, however, should use a different yardstick. We must think about the well-being of the institutions we lead, not just our own loss or gain. Our job is to build long term value in our businesses for the benefit of shareholders, employees, and other stakeholders. We are well paid. We should we willing to make personal sacrifices to do so.

Comey says he made the choice that best upheld the duty of the FBI to be objective investigators and “stay out of politics”. Listening to his testimony, I got the sense that he was also very concerned for the future of the institution he leads: that it remain true to its mission and respected, that it avoid becoming a political tool. Lacking an option that would assure no political impact, he made the choice that promised the least political impact if the uncertain factors went against him, as they did. He has taken enormous flak for his decision; you can see this by typing his name into Google today. And now he is the first FBI Director to be fired for making decisions that frustrated politicians.

[Update: May 11, 8:15 am: See below the text of Comey’s departing message to FBI employees.]

But I think analysis of the facts shows that Comey has acted in the best long term interest of the institution he led and the customers he served: the citizens of the U.S. I expect he will be viewed respectfully by people in the FBI, by serious observers elsewhere, and perhaps by many Americans over time. Business leaders can take a valuable lesson from Director Comey: we are here to lead our institutions for the benefit of the stakeholders, and sometimes we have to take a bullet to do that job well. Political leaders should keep “Comey’s Choice” in mind when they talk about running government more like business.

First posted @ blogs.forbes.com/toddhixon on May 10, 2017.

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