Paul L. Caron

Thursday, May 10, 2018

James Comey's Five Principles Of Ethical Leadership For Law School Deans

Higher LoyaltyJack Goldsmith (Harvard), Comey on Ethical Leadership:

“A Higher Loyalty” conveys what Comey learned about ethical leadership over the course of his life. ... It is also a book about how and why he practiced ethical leadership during his career, and his self-criticisms of those efforts.

I will analyze Comey’s assessment of his controversy-filled time as FBI director in a subsequent review. Below I simply try to summarize, in a way that cannot begin to do the book justice, some of what we might term Comey’s “Principles of Ethical Leadership.” ...

1. The Sacrosanctity of Truth
The subtitle of Comey’s book—“A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies, and Leadership”—indicates the priority of truth in Comey’s thinking. He believes truth is the most important value in private and public life. ...

2. Openness to Criticism and Contrary Points of View
“The danger in every organization, especially one built around hierarchy, is that you create an environment that cuts off dissenting views and discourages honest feedback,” Comey cautions. “That can quickly lead to a culture of delusion and deception.” This danger is worrisome because leaders need to know the truth, and “to see the world as it is and not as they wish it to be,” in order to make wise decisions. To fight this danger, advises Comey, the ethical leader must seek out and create an environment that invites criticism. “Ethical leaders do not run from criticism, especially self-criticism, and they don’t hide from uncomfortable questions,” he says. “They welcome them.” ...

3. Confidence and Humility
Leadership requires confident decision making, and leaders feel pressure to be confident in their judgments. But, Comey argues, confidence must be tempered with humility, and indeed, true confidence entails humility. “[B]eing confident enough to be humble—comfortable in your own skin—is at the heart of effective leadership.” The reason is that, as noted above, excellent leaders worry about what they don’t know or see, and “humility makes a whole lot of things possible, none more important than a single, humble question: ‘What am I missing?’” ...

4. Kindness and Toughness
“The best leaders are both kind and tough,” says Comey. “Without both, people don’t thrive.” ... The bottom line: “The tough and kind leader loves her people enough to know they can always improve their game. She lights a fire in them to always get better.”

5. Lead by Example, Not Fear
Ethical leaders lead by example, not fear:
The good news is that integrity and truth-telling can be modeled in powerful ways, shaping cultures of honesty, openness, and transparency. Ethical leaders can mold a culture by their words and, more important, by their actions, because they are always being watched. Unfortunately, the inverse is also true. Dishonest leaders have the same ability to shape a culture, by showing their people dishonesty, corruption, and deception. A commitment to integrity and a higher loyalty to truth are what separate the ethical leader from those who just happen to occupy leadership roles. ...

Comey’s Principles of Ethical Leadership are insightful and attractive and capture movingly and well some of the main characteristics of effective leaders across many organizations and contexts ranging from government to business to family.

Legal Education | Permalink


Ted Seto: I didn't need a career bureacrat to remind me of anything. I learned variations of those common sense rules from people I've personally worked for, whom I personally respect.

I'd pat Comey on the back, but you and he are already doing that...

Posted by: MM | May 10, 2018 7:13:25 PM

This is a joke, right?

Posted by: Champ | May 10, 2018 11:35:31 AM

I sense (or perhaps hope) that the two prior posts reflect the politics of the moment, not substantive disagreement with what Comey has said. Regardless of the author, the principles articulated are essential to good leadership -- at whatever level. And regardless of anything else Comey has done, he has done us all a service by reminding us of them.

Posted by: Ted Seto | May 10, 2018 8:17:55 AM

Write a book and do a tour

Posted by: mike livingston | May 10, 2018 4:08:57 AM

I'm eager to see if the Inspector General finds whether Director Comey followed his own ethical rules while at the FBI...

Posted by: MM | May 9, 2018 6:28:36 PM