James Comey on Leadership

I am reading A Higher Loyalty by James Comey. I read another book recently about an FBI agent and found it fascinating how these people work to protect us every day. I would like to share something interesting Comey wrote after his first encounter with President Obama.

After 9/11, there was a mass revision of how the CIA, FBI, and law enforcement agencies do their investigating and how they coordinate their work. Their lack of coordination and information sharing was blamed as a reason why the covert activities of those who attacked went undetected. There was a concern that the revisions gave for the agencies to investigate overstepped their bounds – a clash between privacy and security. President Obama called a meeting at the White House and Comey was one of those asked to attend.

Comey had already spoken about Obama’s unusual ability to listen deeply and he did so at this meeting as he listened to the members of the National Security Council present their opinions. At the end of the meeting, the president said, “Normally I can figure these things out, but this one is really hard”

I will quote Comey on his reaction because I think it is a significant contribution to any definition of leadership that I have ever seen:

I had two reactions to the comment, both of which I kept to myself. “No kidding” was the first reaction. A whole lot of smart people had been banging on this incredibly complicated issue for years. My second reaction was to be struck by the president’s breathtaking confidence. To my eyes, at least, he wasn’t puffing or trying to show off. He also wasn’t being self-depreciating or sarcastic in the way President Bush might have. He really did believe that he, Barack Obama, could always figure out the hardest stuff. He couldn’t figure this one out, which surprised him. Wow, I thought.

I really didn’t know what to make of it. That much confidence – the belief that he personally can solve even the hardest problems – can be worrisome in a leader who tends to close off other views. I had seen it in myself. One of my weaknesses, especially when I was younger, was overconfidence, a tendency to reach a conclusion quickly and cling too tightly. Or to make a decision too quickly, telling myself I was “decisive”, when I was really being impulsive and arrogant. I have struggled with this my entire life. But in Obama, I had also seen the humanity to learn from others, which doesn’t often exist alongside overconfidence. I still don’t know what to make of it, and I can’t think of a national security issue on which we interacted in which he showed an imbalance of confidence and humility. Instead I saw President Obama work to get people to relax and tell him what he needed to know.


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