James B. Comey
Federal Bureau of Investigation
George Washington Leadership Lecture
Mount Vernon, Virginia
October 3, 2016

Leadership Lessons from George Washington and the FBI

Remarks as delivered.

Thank you to Mount Vernon and to USC-Price for asking me to come speak today. It’s a little daunting, frankly, to be speaking about leadership here at the home of George Washington. I feel like he casts a much longer shadow, maybe not physically since I'm 6'8", but a much, much longer shadow on the question of leadership, metaphorically, than I do. So I'm humbled by the opportunity to talk at his home about how I think about leadership—some of the things that I have tried to learn as a leader, and some of the things I've learned about George Washington, both before becoming a leader and then I've confirmed some of the things that I think are important to leadership. I'd like to share those thoughts with you very, very briefly, and then I want to take your questions, which will be the fun part.

Let me start by talking about leadership and tell you what I think the goal of all leaders is, and that is: to help their people achieve their goals. To help their people be as good as they can possibly be—and by doing that, to make possible their dreams, their hopes, their objectives; to facilitate their people in being great.

When people think about leadership in a whole lot of government and the private sector, I think they think and talk about it backwards. I think most places, people talk about the same categories of leadership attributes that I think of but do it in a different way than I do. Most people talk about skills. That is, what are the things you've learned to do? What are jobs you've inherited? How did you do in those jobs? Then they talk next about your abilities. What are the things you do well, either by nature or by nurture? Good conceptual thinker, great under pressure, good communicator, great logical thinker, creative, imaginative, those kinds of capabilities.

Then last, if at all, when people are evaluating leaders, they talk about their values. What kind of people are they? How are they oriented in life? Do they care about others? Are they people of integrity? Are they people of centeredness? Are they people who aspire to do something greater than themselves? What are they like?

I actually have come to learn that the way to evaluate leaders is not from skills through abilities to values but to actually start the other way. If a leader has the right values and the right abilities, they can learn anything. If you hire and promote backwards and start with, so what are their skills? What jobs have they had?—you may miss the fact that they don't have the abilities you need and the values you need.

Those are the two framings I want to start with. Then I want to talk to you about what I think are the essential elements of leadership. You're going to hear me entirely in a combination of the values and abilities buckets. I'm not going to talk much about skills, because, as I said, that’s the least important thing in understanding the capabilities, the potential of someone who might be a leader.

I actually boil down the essential elements of a leader to two seemingly contradictory pairs of attributes—kindness and toughness; confidence and humility. They seem like they're contradictory, but if you look at the great leaders of this nation, starting with George Washington, you see that combination that seems like a contradiction but is actually a source of tremendous strength.

Let’s start with what I know about George Washington. I'm sure I'm surrounded by people who know more about George Washington than I. There’s no doubt that George Washington was tough. There’s no doubt that George Washington held his people accountable, often very, very severely, when measured against high standards. But George Washington was also kind and understood how to inspire in his people almost a love and an affection for himself and for their mission.

George Washington was somehow able to—as one of his biographers, Richard Brookhiser, said, he would use consistently the same phrase. It would be, “My brave men.” He would use it in all different kinds of contexts. “My brave fellows,” he would say. “My brave fellows, I ask you to re-enlist.” “My brave fellows, fight.” As Brookhiser said, “Washington was getting them to be brave by telling them that they were brave.” By telling them that he cared deeply about them, because they already embodied this essential element. Washington’s toughness and kindness, I think, made him a model for leadership—but so did that second combination, of humility and confidence.

The best leaders are people who are comfortable enough in their own skin to surround themselves with great talent and be open to learning from that talent. They are people who are comfortable enough in their own skin to listen well—which is something that insecure people struggle with mightily.

When you think about Washington, think about the talent he surrounded himself with. Just—I'm not going to name-drop on you, but let me drop Adams, Jefferson, Hamilton, and Madison, among others. We're talking about brilliant and well-read people of extraordinary accomplishment, and not themselves without ego. He surrounded himself with this kind of talent as the first president of the United States, because he understood and had the confidence to get better as a result of their presence.

It required a centeredness, a sense of self that allowed him to be comfortable enough to listen to these people and to learn from them. But at bottom it also required enough confidence to insist that whatever the advice, the decision was his. Whatever final decision was made, it was a testament to his own judgment and his own character. Listening, but not being dominated by the talent around him.

I want to say a word about listening in particular, because I think this is actually at the center of leadership. Everyone talks about how communication is a very important part of leadership. There’s no doubt about that. This kind of communication—me blathering at somebody—is an important part of leadership. But a form of communication that does not involve active speaking is more important, in my view, and that is listening.

I have been married for 29 years. I dated my amazing spouse for seven years before that—took a long time to convince her of a lot of things. During all those years, it’s been a continual journey, a project underway, for her to teach me things. One of the things she had taught me is what real listening is.

I was one of those people who thought I knew what real listening was. I obviously discarded what I call the “Washington listen,” which is your words reaching my ears, actually coming inside in my ears and actually reaching my brain, really that period of silence while I wait to say what I already planned to say; while I wait to say what an idiot you are. I knew that wasn't really listening. Silence alone is not real listening. I was somebody who mistakenly thought that real listening was silence on my part—your words reaching my brain and me actually consciously processing what you're saying.

What I've discovered is that real listening is silence, plus your words reaching my brain, plus something else that’s odd, which is an active communication from the listener that I need to know what you're saying. That I need what is coming out of your mouth. Please give it to me. Please give it to me.

A good listener—which I aspire to be, and it’s a continuing journey—is sending those messages with the shoulders, with the face, with weird sounds. If you've ever watched two great friends communicate, you could not put it down if you were a stenographer, because they're talking over each other and one’s going like this: “Mm-hm. No, I... Pfff. Whewff. Ouch. I see. Tsk.” It’s fragments of sentences, it’s words, it’s sounds. What’s going on there is that the listener is pulling from the speaker what that person has to say.

Why am I telling you this, standing here at George Washington’s home? Washington was an extraordinary listener. People who wrote about him at the time, and have written about him since, comment on that. John Ferling, who many of you may know as a leading historian of the American Revolution, has written that “Washington was unsurpassed as a listener.” He listened to those who criticized his mistakes during the French and Indian War, and he learned from those mistakes and got better. During the War of Independence he listened to Congress, as painful as that was—back in the day it was painful to listen to Congress—as painful as that was. He listened to the states, as difficult as that could be. He listened to advice from his own generals, people he outranked. He learned from it, and he acted upon it.

The challenge of active listening, that kind of, that third state of the world, is that it requires an extraordinary amount of confidence. To actually listen well as a leader, among the messages you need to send to the person speaking is, “You know something that I need to know.” And what is that? It’s a confession of weakness. Insecure people struggle mightily with this, because insecure people are exposed if they send a message—especially to people who work for them—that they need to know what they are saying. Insecure people struggle to expose themselves, to pull the words out of somebody, especially somebody who works for them.

Another obstacle to listening is the double bind of the impostor complex. The impostor complex is the notion that if you really knew me, if you ever really knew me, you would think less of me. All of us have that to one degree or another. If you don't, you're an unbelievable jerk. Every single one of us, I hope, is afflicted by in some measure a sense that if people knew me the way I really know me, they wouldn't think I was such hot stuff. Here’s why that’s such an impediment to listening.

I'm the boss and one of my folks is going to speak to me. I'm worried about being exposed, because I labor under the impostor complex. But it’s a double bind, because the person speaking to me is speaking to the Director of the FBI. I could severely injure them with a sound, just by going “Pfft” after they speak, or by making a face. They know that, and so their fear of being exposed can be paralyzing. If I'm going to overcome my impostor complex and their impostor complex, I have to be intentional about listening, and listening in that weird, third uncomfortable way.

When people come to brief me—I'm giving away my secrets here—when people come to brief me, I turn in my chair and always face the person who is speaking. I open my body, and I don't sit with my arms folded, I open my body and I look at them, and I work to, “You're okay. You're going to be okay. You're going to be okay,” to get them to tell me what they need to tell me. Then I'm always careful about how I begin the conversation, how I begin the questioning. Because I know, even if I've overcome my own impostor complex, they're laboring under that, which can be disabling.

Listening, which George Washington did extraordinarily well, is at the heart of being an effective leader and is made possible by that combination of confidence and humility.

Another attribute, another capability-slash-value that I think is at the center of good leadership, is judgment. What I mean by judgment is this—not intelligence. Intelligence is the ability to solve a riddle, to nail an equation, to master a set of facts. It’s actually fairly common in nature. Judgment is the ability to take that answer and orbit it and see it through the eyes of others. To see it in different places in time, to move it around.

People who solve problems can be very, very bright. They have high IQ. But being smart is a very different thing than being bright. Being smart is having the judgment to see things as they might be seen in different places and times.

Where does it comes from? I think mostly the way you were raised. It also comes from making mistakes and learning from them; having the humility to realize you made a mistake and you did this thing that angered people. That is how you protect and nurture judgment.

This is something that stands out about George Washington—how often his peers commented on just that aspect of his leadership, his extraordinary judgment. John Marshall, the nation’s first chief justice, wrote this in his own biography of Washington: “More solid than brilliant, judgment rather than genius constituted the most prominent feature of his character.” What he’s saying, to use my words, Washington—it wasn't about brightness; he was extraordinarily smart.

Thomas Jefferson—didn't always love George Washington, didn't always have the most positive things to say about him—said this after George Washington’s death: “Perhaps the strongest feature in his character was prudence, never acting until every circumstance, every consideration was maturely weighed; refraining if he saw a doubt, but when once decided, going through with his purpose, whatever obstacles opposed.” Judgment was at the core of his leadership and all great leadership.

I'll give you one other attribute that I'll couch in terms that Washington never would have used. The words emotional intelligence, or EQ, would never have escaped his lips or any of his peers’. But I believe the concept that we now call emotional intelligence is a critical capability of all successful leaders. What we mean by emotional intelligence is an ability, close to judgment, to circle a room and see how others might be experiencing you, and how others might be experiencing the world—and through that insight, to be able to connect to them, to communicate to them, in effective ways.

It’s in huge part natural. It’s one of those cruel gifts that is given in disproportionate measure, in my experience, to women at birth. But as part of my own journey, 29 years plus seven, I've learned anyone, if intentional about it, can foster this ability. This ability to understand other people and to connect to them in an effective way.

Now it starts with understanding yourself and your own emotions. And you know Washington controlled his fiery temper in extraordinary ways. But someone with high emotional intelligence also focuses on building relationships with others and understanding them, then using those relationships to accomplish the goals that I started out with—that a leader wants to lead his people to accomplish.

Washington’s career involves a whole lot of this, maybe most famously with the so-called Newburgh Conspiracy. As the Revolutionary War drew to a close, officers in the Continental Army grew angry, very angry at Congress because they hadn't been paid. Some even circulated an anonymous letter calling for an unauthorized meeting to discuss disbanding the army or even rebelling against Congress. To diffuse this crisis, Washington called his own meeting with officers to discuss what was going on, but he implied in his invitation to them that he wasn't going to be there. It would be a meeting for them to talk about this problem.

Then when the meeting began, Washington unexpectedly showed up. He denounced the loose talk of mutiny. He implored his officers to “give one more distinguished proof of unexampled patriotism and patient virtue” by trusting Congress to keep its word.

Most importantly, he did not elevate himself. Instead, what he did, he connected to his men and emphasized their personal bond. He said this, and I want to quote the entire paragraph: “As I was among the first who embarked in the cause of our common country; as I have never left your side one moment but when called from you on public duty; as I have been the constant companion and witness of your distresses, and not among the last to feel and acknowledge your merits... it can scarcely be supposed, at this late stage of the war, that I am indifferent to [your] interests.”

Then his extraordinary emotional intelligence led him to do one more thing. He started reading a letter from a congressman explaining the government’s financial troubles. He stumbled through the first paragraph. Then he fished into his pocket and he retrieved a set of spectacles—new eyeglasses that his men had never seen before. Then he said to his men this: “Gentleman, you will permit me to put on my spectacles, for I have not only grown grey but almost blind in service to my country.”

That touch of vulnerability from their otherwise stoic commander overwhelmed his men, as Washington knew it would. Overwhelmed them emotionally. Some of them began to weep, as they looked upon this aging man who had given so much to them and to this new nation. Washington finished the letter and left without saying another word. After he left, those officers unanimously abandoned the idea of rebellion.

Did Washington engage in a bit of theater here? Of course. But it was rooted in truth. It was rooted in his understanding of those great men and how he might touch them and motivate them. It was rooted in his own emotional intelligence, which helped save the American Revolution from collapsing on the very brink of triumph.

That’s how I think about the attributes—the combination of abilities and values—that mark a great leader. I should hasten to add here a word of caution. Leadership is not for everyone. I've worked many places that made the classic mistake of saying, “You are the greatest rocket scientist in our company. Therefore, you will be an extraordinary leader of other rocket scientists.” It is almost never the case that the world-class doer of anything is a world-class coach of a group of people trying to do that same thing.

Now you can search for your own examples. I follow basketball, so I've tried to come up with examples of people who were Hall of Fame players and Hall of Fame coaches. One of them is from Southern California—another school—named John Wooden, I don't want to dwell on that here today. Think about players like Wayne Gretzky, right? The “Great One.” Maybe the greatest hockey player ever on ice; not so great as a coach. Mike Krzyzewski at Duke, a middling basketball player. One of—some would argue, the best—basketball coach in the game today and the leader in NCAA basketball wins.

Those of you who follow baseball this time of year—Tony La Russa was another middling baseball player. I wrote down the stats: .199 batting average, 35 hits in his career, seven RBIs in his entire career. Back and forth between the minors and the bigs. In 33 seasons as a manager, he helped his team win the World Series three times, six pennants, and 12 division titles.

It is a very different thing to be the great doer of something and the great leader of others in doing something. To be the great doer of something requires a focus on self. That’s not illegitimate. That’s not unhealthy. How do I get better? How do I push myself harder? How do I make more baskets? How do I get more opportunities?

To be the great coach of that group requires a focus in the opposite direction. How do I get them to play better together as a team? How do I motivate him and her and him and her when they're such very different people? It requires a set of abilities very different from the Hall of Fame individual contributor.

To me, having a conversation with people about leadership is about having honest conversations about whether someone either has that collection of abilities and values to be a leader, or, if they are short in some respects, can develop them to be a successful leader. It’s about finding what they are strong at and trying to build on it. But most of all it’s about honest conversations.

I'll tell you one of my favorite honest conversation stories. I thought I could be a high school football player, and so I went out for football as a freshman in high school. I was not as muscular as I appear today, and I was much shorter. Same size feet, so I was also slow and weak and small.

I got injured three times in the first three weeks. I cut my foot in a bizarre accident in the training room. Someone knocked a bench over on me. I sprained my knee. I'll tell you a true story, show you a little humility. I was holding a tackling dummy—that was my highest and best use—and someone plowed into it, knocking me and the tackling dummy over backwards. I landed so hard on the tip of my spine that I bruised it. I couldn't sit down.

So I'm at home and trying to find a way to sit and my mother comes up. My amazing mother—who has since died, but she was an extraordinary influence on my life—she said, “You quit football.” I said, “No I didn't. I'm not going to quit football. I'm going to get back in there.” She said, “No, no. You quit football. I just went over to the coach’s house.”

I was humiliated. But it required someone who loved me enough. Remember I talked about kindness and toughness? I was raised by people who were both. She loved me enough to tell me the truth. “You will never be a football player. That is not your strength.” Now I draw the line at going and quitting for people.

The last thing a leader needs is a reason to lead. A leader has to have a passion, some source of meaning at the core of their leadership, else they can't share it with the people that they lead.

Obviously Washington had as his passion his love of country and his sense of duty, which was overwhelming. What I love about being part of the FBI is I get to do work with moral content. I'm part of an organization that has as its mission protecting the American people and upholding the Constitution of the United States. That for me is a source of meaning all day, every day. It allows me to find fire, even in difficult times, and for me to grieve the notion that I have to leave in seven years—I only have seven left in my 10-year term. Leaders must have a source of passion and a fire in their bellies.

That’s what I think about leadership. That’s how I think George Washington reflected some of the most important attributes of a leader. I think his leadership gave us a priceless gift, which is an independent nation where everyone is free to pursue their own lives, the blessings of liberty, and to find their own happiness. I believe our responsibility is to protect that gift that we received and pass it on to those who follow us. For that, I believe we need more leaders like George Washington. We need more people who are tough and kind, who have enough confidence to be humble, so that they can listen well, so they can make great decisions. And we need them not just in our presidents or our generals, I think we need them in all walks of life.

I hope George Washington’s example will continue to light the way for us, to inspire us, to shame us when we lose track of those values, to aspire always to help our people achieve their dreams in a great way.

Thank you for listening to me. I look forward to our conversation.