Further Lessons From The Comey Firing: Avoid This Leadership Mistake

Further developments in the story of James Comey’s firing offer lessons to entrepreneurs and business leaders about when to be bold and when to be disciplined, always putting the company first.

The two weeks since my first post on leadership lessons from former FBI Director James Comey have brought more information to light, particularly President Trump’s many-faceted explanation of his decision to fire Comey, and a very articulate memorandum justifying the decision written by Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein. President Trump’s criticism of Comey was most convincing when he called Comey a “showboat”. While the irony of this characterization is hard to ignore, President Trump has a point.

Rosenstein makes the case for both showboating, disrespect of the chain of command, and violation of Justice Department norms quite clearly, particularly regarding Comey’s public announcement in July 2016 that the investigation into Hilary Clinton’s email server had concluded with a finding of no indictable offense, and that he would inform Congress if anything were to change. Comey went on to scold Ms. Clinton forcefully for her actions.

Rosenstein’s memo was written under suspicious circumstances: President Trump made his decision to fire Comey first and later asked Rosenstein to write the memo to justify the decision. However, Rosenstein has a strong reputation for professionalism, the memo is carefully argued and contains concurring opinions from several former Attorneys General from both parties and, reading it, I get the sense that Rosenstein strongly believes in the case he makes. And, last week Rosenstein showed substantial spine when, on his own authority, he appointed former FBI director Robert Mueller as special prosecutor to oversee the investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election.

Rosenstein asserts that Comey had no business announcing that Clinton would not be prosecuted because the FBI’s role is to investigate; decisions to prosecute, or not, are made by prosecutors reporting to the Attorney General (the “AG”). Comey justified making the July announcement on the basis that then-AG Loretta Lynch was conflicted due to a conversation she had with Ms. Clinton’s husband. However, Rosenstein points out that there is an established protocol in the Department of Justice for handling conflicts of interest and recusal. In similar circumstances, AG Sessions recused himself from involvement in the investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election. Comey’s argument that circumstances compelled him to go public with the results of the Clinton email investigation is shaky.

Furthermore, Rosenstein points out that Comey’s scolding of Ms. Clinton was a clear violation of Justice Department and FBI protocol, which holds that officials will not denigrate people for whom prosecution has been declined. Comey clearly violated this protocol and has offered no justification for doing so.

Rosenstein goes on to criticize Comey’s decision to inform Congress (and thereby the public) when the investigation was re-opened in late October 2016. I buy Comey’s argument that he chose a very bad option over a disastrous option then. But, he put himself in that position when he went public with the results of the investigation in July. If Comey had followed protocol and left responsibility for communicating those results to the Office of the AG, then his default option in October would also have been to let the AG’s office handle the decision to disclose, or not.

This matter is complicated by the strong, and sometimes controversial, tradition of independence of the FBI. In his parting letter to the FBI staff, Comey wrote that “the American people should see the FBI as a rock of competence, honesty, and independence” [my italics]. In a situation the FBI Director believes to be critical for the United States, this tradition creates pressure to act rather then rely on other parts of the government. Comey is said to have made his decision to write the October letter to Congress after consultation with senior FBI management. And, by almost all reports, he continues to be highly regarded within the FBI.

Bottom line: it looks to me like Comey stepped into the limelight and grabbed the microphone in July when he should not have, and that put him in a very tough spot in October. And when he testified before Congress about these actions in early May 2017, he struck me as disrespectful of questioners. His comment about the situation leaving him “vaguely nauseous” has a bad odor, and he seemed at times impatient or even superior in his attitude. Taking a raking over the coals from Congress is tough, but any senior federal official knows it can be part of the job.

Comey’s departure offers a valuable lesson to entrepreneurs and business leaders. The best business leaders know that they are not appointed to serve their own egos, they are appointed to act in the interest of the organization they lead. Leaders who are brilliant, driven, and forceful, but also narcissistically self-indulgent and undisciplined, get in trouble. There are many examples close at hand. By comparison, consider Steve Jobs in his mature years: he was a great showman, but he used his showmanship exclusively to promote the products and interests of Apple. The FBI appreciates Comey for his principled leadership and commitment to the institution, but I expect they wish he had not gotten them into political quicksand by going too far. Everything you do as a business leader, especially with third parties, should be about the company, not yourself.

First posted @ blogs.forbes.com/toddhixon on May 25, 2017.

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