June 6. Keynote Speaker: Jim Comey.
Mike Row, Chief Relationship Officer, Pershing and James Comey, Director, Federal Bureau of Investigation (2013-2017) had a back-and-forth frank discussion on “The Ethical Leader”. I took three pages of notes as I knew that as “Press” at this event, I should make sure the comments could be shared. Here are the key take-aways (lots of them)”.
One of the first leaders Jim encountered was when he was a stock-boy at the grocery store. “Harry Howell was a great boss – tough and kind. We knew this guy loved us, but he had real high standards and we tried so hard to please him.” After Jim made a major mistake, Harry simply said to clean it up and walked away; no dressing down. “My love and desire to be even better went up.” That is a great leadership memory to take with you! As Jim said of leadership, “I want to offer a vision… of what it should look like.” Jim based much of his comments on loyalty to institutions: “What is in the interest of this institution in the long term. Truth is the central value in any successful company and any successful country. As a leader I can make better decisions if told the truth especially about myself.” Jim wasn’t being specific about today’s world one way or another, but I sensed some point to him bringing up truth. A goal of a leader is to create trust with their followers and truth is basic to trust.
Jim had a thing for the “impostor complex” a term I wasn’t familiar with at the time but have found that it is the self-belief that someone will discover you are a fraud, even (and more likely) if you are not a fraud. Sort of “They really think I know what I am doing; I hope they don’t find out that I am not sure I do!” The reason this was important in the discussion is that as a leader, Jim felt he had to “flatten the hill” meaning that he had to make it easier for subordinates of all levels to reach the leader (him). The idea is that if Jim were way up on a steep hill, that presents a problem. Jim: “I have to overcome my impostor complex to flatten the hill. You can’t get the truth without flattening the hill.” To do this: “First is the way you model and way you listen. The more you risk yourself the more likely you get the outcomes want to see.” For example, Jim tried to relax the dress code of the FBI by jettisoning the very “funerial” look special agents specialized in to relax the communication atmosphere. Jim needed to “create for people a safe place. Listening requires the leader to shut up” to get the truth. He contrasted his ethic about truth to the Cosa Nostra noting that their culture is based on lying all the time. He segued to Martha Stewart saying that the reason for the prosecution was that it is the job and duty of the FBI to document for the US Attorney all lying, including that of the rich and famous. He has a problem with liars; he believes America deserves a culture of truth.
Further on leadership, he gave some personal observations. “You have to have enough confidence to be humble… The only way you will get better is to shut up and listen.” “It takes enough confidence in yourself to enjoy other people.” “I built structures that are set up to tell me I am wrong” mentioning he had staff that had total permission to come into his office after a meeting and say “No dude, that was all wrong!” It’s important to get “people around me that sees things differently.”
Jim noted that, unfortunately, “the nature of hard decisions is that they are not susceptible to confirmation” in that once the decision is made there is no checking to see how it would have gone otherwise. Regarding these decisions he always considered how it would affect the institution; would the decision damage the institution. “You gotta do the thing that is least bad to the institution” (yes he said “gotta”). The context being the Clinton email announcement so close to the election. As he said, “Let’s root for ‘let’s find out what the facts are’.”
Jim summarized his outlook on America. “I’m real worried about the American set of values. It’s what it means to be American.” However, he noted, “In the wake of a forest fire there is room to grow.” (Ecologists will likely remind us that what comes in the wake of a fire is a different flora and fauna than previous). He believes “There is a deep culture in this country. It is about the rule of law, truth, and integrity of our institutions. It is a set of ideas that a diverse group believe in.” So, you be the judge as to what current message he is sending.
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