As part of our ongoing “As the Leader” series, James Comey—yes, that James Comey—gives us the inside scoop on everything from his approach to hiring to his announcement regarding the 2016 investigation into Hillary Clinton’s emails. Here are some highlights, edited for space, from his conversation with Adam Bryant, Senior Advisor of the Reuben Mark Initiative for Organizational Character and Leadership.
My parents were really good parents. They emphasized service and integrity, and I’ve tried to copy a lot of what they did. I often quote my mother talking about resisting peer pressure and doing the right thing. She used to say that if everyone’s lining up to jump off the George Washington Bridge, are you going to get in that line? Those messages of service, integrity, and being the same person on the inside as the outside were drilled into me and my three siblings from a young age.
Developing a Thick Skin
Because of the way I was raised, I always thought of myself as someone who was keen to resist peer pressure, to resist the crowd. In high school, I carried a saying by Ralph Waldo Emerson in my wallet about the great leader being the one who, in the midst of a crowd, keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude. It’s easy to be your own person when you’re alone. It’s easy to be with the crowd in the crowd, but the balance is the hard part.
I started with this sense that I had to resist the crowd. The danger in that is if you go too far one way or the other, you’re not effective as a leader, especially if you lead an institution that relies on public faith and confidence. So, I started my role a little out of balance towards the fiercely independent side—not caring what people say—and moved to a healthier place toward the middle of my career.
It’s hard in the social media age because there’s some ugly stuff out there. There’s a reason I’ve never read Twitter comments. But you can’t slam the window entirely, so—just to extend that metaphor—I try to open the window enough so that I hear thoughtful voices from people who’ve seen facts I haven’t seen or had experiences that I haven’t had.
Their voices getting through the window crack are valuable to me, but you can’t open it too far or you’ll be overwhelmed with noise and unable to figure out the signal. It’s easy to say, but hard to do in practice. You have to care what people think, but you can’t care too much, or you’ll be overwhelmed.
His Decision to Announce a New Investigation into Hillary Clinton’s Emails Shortly Before the 2016 Election
I knew in late October 2016 that no matter which decision I made, I was going to be criticized. I was going to get hate mail if I concealed that we reopened an investigation that we told the world we finished, and I was going to get hammered if I spoke up and told Congress that what we told them all summer about a closed investigation was no longer true.
And so, knowing that you’re going to get widely criticized no matter which way you go was in some sense—and I don’t mean to sound flippant—really freeing, and made it, in a strange way, easier to focus on the right thing to do.
What is the decision that I will be most comfortable defending and explaining ten or twenty years from now when my grandkids are in college, and they read about it? What makes this a good decision, even if other people would do it differently?
Framework for Assessing Leaders
I focus on four attributes which I believe make a good leader, and I think about them in pairs. First, is there a balance of confidence and humility? And then, is there a balance of kindness and toughness? When I look at leaders, I’m always looking for those balances.
I see a lot of people who are out of balance on the toughness-kindness equipoise. They’re either too gentle and unable to push people to greatness, or they think that being a leader is just about whipping horses. In Washington, the chronic imbalance is about confidence and humility. There are many people who are fundamentally insecure and unable to show the humility that risks them being exposed as an imposter. What they don’t know is that we are all imposters, in a sense.
Approach to Hiring
I look for two other things, which are closely connected. I think of intelligence as a kind of cover charge. You’ve got to have it. So, I focus on judgement. Judgement is different from intelligence, and it’s important that people are looking to be wrong, understanding when they can be wrong, but they are not debilitated by a fear of being wrong.
When I was hiring, say, for the Southern District of New York, all the candidates were really smart young lawyers, but I was looking for judgement because we were going to give them power. I needed them to be able to exercise power responsibly, and that’s not about being bright. That’s about having good judgement. Those are, of course, connected to a balance of confidence and humility.
When I’m interviewing, I start by saying, “Tell me your story.” I learn a lot by where they start, and their answer also reveals what kind of thinker they are. Conceptual and broad thinkers tend to organize their life story in themes, and they return to the higher-level themes throughout their answers. They don’t get stuck in details like talking about their sixth-grade teacher. That question also reveals what they value.
Career and Life Advice for Students
I warn them about the siren song of success distracting them from truly adding value to society. This is a disease, especially among lawyers, and I ache for friends who have devoted themselves to big law and made all kinds of money, but never took the opportunities to build relationships with their family or the community and to do good for others in a way that’s hard to do when you’re obsessed with a big law career.
I ache for them because I worry that they pursued success at the expense of value. So, I tell my students that I’m a big fan of public service because it’s a path to value. Try to do something good for other people. It’s hard on your credit cards. It’s hard to raise kids and put them through college, so it’s possible you might not be able to do it for a whole career, but regret is one of the most devastating human emotions. You’ll reduce your chances of regret if you seize those opportunities when you get them.