Jim Comey’s Final Moment In The Spotlight Teaches Balance Between Duty And Self
When former FBI Director Jim Comey made his eagerly anticipated appearance before the Senate Intelligence Committee, he did not disappoint. The two hour session focused on politics: why Comey was fired and whether or not President Trump sought to derail the FBI’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election. I want to focus, however, on lessons we can learn from Comey’s appearance about CEO leadership.
I previously posted about Comey as an example of a CEO putting the interests of his organization first, and also as an example of a CEO giving in to temptation to cater to his or her personal agenda. Comey provides examples on both sides. CEOs are powerful, confident, driven people who have had a lot of success. We should not be surprised if they think of themselves as important players on life’s stage, want to play visible roles at key moments, and expect recognition. A CEO too meek to do this would not be good at his or her job.
The best CEOs, however, keep almost all of their executive and promotional energy focused on doing the best possible job for their companies, and for their people. They don’t engage in politics beyond supporting causes widely viewed as worthy. They don’t try to be celebrities, knowing that celebrity CEOs often become embarrassments. They keep their private lives private.
Comey’s testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee was probably the last word that he will have in the public spotlight, at least until the administration changes. It was his opportunity to set the record straight and also do what he could to serve his agenda as former FBI leader and any personal agendas. Comey challenged the propriety of actions and the veracity of statements by a sitting U.S. president. He stated that he leaked portions of his notes from meetings with the president with the goal of instigating appointment of a special prosecutor. Policing the actions of government officials is part of the FBI’s responsibility. And, Comey claims personal glory and potentially a place in history when he takes on, and potentially takes down, a president. I spoke last weekend with a friend whose father is Archibald Cox. Both of us saw parallels between Comey’s circumstances and Mr. Cox’s firing by President Nixon during the Watergate scandal. Comey’s testimony shows how he set the balance between his institution’s agenda and his own with his last words on the public stage.
The bulk of his testimony was answers to questions: 19 committee members questioned Comey for seven minutes each. Comey’s tone and affect were remarkable. He was calm, comfortable but not over-familiar, matter-of-fact, and devoid of any apparent emotional agenda. He was even funny at one point: he reported that, when he received a last minute summons to a White House dinner with President Trump, he had to cancel date night with his wife, and he would have much preferred to dine with her. His testimony was sometimes humble: e.g., when he questioned his courage in interactions with President Trump. And he sought balance when he went beyond the question to make a point in support of members of the administration. Overall, Comey came across as a dedicated leader trying to do his job and protect the institutions he served in very difficult circumstances. This was a remarkable exhibition of pure professionalism by a senior leader representing his organization in public.
In his opening remarks, however, Comey let his feelings show. Referring to president Trump’s assertion that Comey was not able to lead the FBI, as demonstrated by disarray with the FBI and lack of confidence in Comey as its leader, Comey said “He defamed me, but more important, he defamed the FBI. Those are lies, plain and simple, and I am so sorry that the FBI workforce had to hear them. ” He felt the sting of alleged incompetence in his ego, but he showed more concern about the aspersion cast on the morale and efficiency of the organization he led.
And at the end of his opening remarks, Comey did an extraordinary thing. He used the last 30 seconds of his time in the national spotlight to say goodbye to the FBI staff, which his abrupt firing denied him the opportunity to do, and to exhort and encourage them to carry forward the mission, work, and values of the FBI. It was a heartfelt and moving speech.
Each of us can draw her or his own conclusion on how Comey struck the balance between his role as a leader and his personal aspirations to be a star player. The committee members treated Comey with respect and several said they see him as an excellent professional. Regardless of party affiliation or where you come down on Mr. Comey’s conduct, his moment in the spotlight is a chance to learn about the challenge of balancing duty and self and how one very smart and serious man struck that balance.
First posted @ blogs.forbes.com/toddhixon on June 15, 2017.