James B. Comey
Federal Bureau of Investigation
Brendan F. Brown Lecture Series, Catholic University
Washington, D.C.
April 12, 2016

The Core of Good Leadership

Remarks as delivered.

Thank you so much for that intro, which was way too generous. You did find the letter my mother wrote me. I appreciate that.

What I thought I would do is just share some brief thoughts with you about how I and the FBI are thinking about leadership these days, and why it matters so much. I want to talk to you about some of the essential elements of a successful leader that may be of use to you. Primarily, my hope is that the law students here are thinking about what they’re going to do with the law degree they get from this great place.

First, how are we thinking about leadership in the FBI? We actually are focusing on what you are like more than what you have done. We’ve come to believe that what matters most in a leader is whether you possess a common set of attributes that will make you able to connect well with people, listen well to people, make sound judgments, and be a person of integrity, balance, and restraint. We boil those attributes down to two twin pairs that seem contradictory, but they’re not: kindness and toughness, confidence and humility.

We’re looking for people who are able to take that first pair, kindness and toughness, and create an atmosphere where the people who work for them know they’re loved, an atmosphere of mutual consideration. I don’t use the word “love” accidentally. They’re held to extremely high standards.

Think about your own lives. If you’re in this room, chances are you had at least one good parent. Think about the good parents you had, the good teachers you had, the good coaches you had, the good bosses you had, and I’ll bet they were people who created an atmosphere where you knew that they cared about you and they kicked you in the pants. All of us are a collection of strengths and weaknesses, and I have a long list. I know my strengths, and I know I have a long list of weaknesses.

One of my weaknesses, especially when I was younger, was the ability to convince myself that what I had done was awesome—whatever it was, just dance away and drop the mic. “Yeah, nailed that!”

Luckily, I was surrounded by people who said, “No, it’s not great.” “No, you can write better than that.” “No, you can reason tighter than that.” “No, you can work harder than that.” “No, you can run faster than that.” “No, you could lift more than that.” “You could be more, and you’re convincing yourself and settling.”

I’m a different person today because I was surrounded by people who did not let me convince myself that I was awesome. That’s only possible in an atmosphere of mutual consideration.

Everybody gets that one without the other is dysfunctional, in this sense: Toughness alone is obviously going to produce for you a horse that runs a few good laps, and then having been whipped too much, falls down and gives you nothing else. I actually believe the reverse is dysfunctional, and in many more ways, more cruel. Kindness alone is a recipe for one of the great tragedies of human existence, which is unfulfilled potential—getting to the end of a career or a life never having been what you could have been. That’s what kindness alone will get you. It will feel good. It’ll be brownies on Wednesdays and cupcakes on Thursdays, and it will be wonderful. You’ll be able to fall into the trap that I would so easily fall into—the “I’m good enough” trap. We need both kindness and toughness. That’s no small task.

Culturally, in an organization that relies upon the chain of command, lives will be lost if the chain of command is not followed. In the FBI, in our operations, it’s vital. Sometimes people think, “To be in charge, to lead that chain, I must be only tough, and kindness will be perceived as weakness.” That is a big mistake. We spend a lot of time talking about that. You can be a nice person, which I think I am, and not a mean person. I am not a mean person. That’s the first combination.

The second combination is the confidence and humility combination. This is a weird one, because it’s actually a bit more important than the first pairing in this respect. We’re looking for people who are comfortable enough in their own skin to shut up and to listen to the people who work for them, to learn from them. We’re looking for people who are confident enough that they would rather be over there and watching one of their people shine, taking joy in the achievements of the people they helped grow and nurture. The challenge for insecure people is they can’t do that. Insecure people can’t be over there because it’s threatening to have one of their people here.

I’m lucky enough to have five children, and I married well above my station in all respects. I was also really lucky to have great parents. It wasn’t until I went to sporting events with my five kids that I discovered a phenomenon that was alien to me. It was parents competing with their own children—this dysfunction where the parent appears to be threatened by the achievements of the child. The best parents, the best teachers, the best coaches, the best bosses feel best when their people become better than them. I think that’s the measure of a great parent. You want your kids to be better at whatever they pursue than you ever were, and that brings you tremendous joy. There’s a certain confidence that’s required to have that reaction.

The other thing that being confident enough to be humble allows you to do is listen. The ability to communicate is the core of leadership, and the most important part of communication is listening. Here’s why it’s so hard to really listen.

I guess I should define my terms. Until I met my amazing wife and began a lifelong process of getting better, which is not done yet, I thought there were two states of the world that pass for listening. One was something everybody gets that’s not real listening. It’s what I call the “Washington listen.” It’s a period of silence while you talk before I say why you’re an idiot and then say what I already planned to say. It’s just your words reaching my ears, but they’re not getting to my brain. Everybody gets that that’s not real listening.

I thought that silence plus your words actually becoming part of my consciousness—I’m actually perceiving what you’re saying—was what listening was. What I learned is that listening is actually that period of silence, your words reaching my brain, plus something weird—my body posture, my face, my sounds. Me signaling to you that I want what you have, I need to know what you know, and I want you to keep telling me the things you’re telling me.

Have you ever watched two good friends talking to each other? It’s a cruel trick of nature that women naturally do this better than men, but men can be good at this. Watch two great female friends talk to each other. You could not transcribe it if you were a stenographer. People are talking over each other. There are weird sounds—“uh huh,” “ooh,” “I know.” What’s going on there? They’re listening to each other in a way that’s pulling out of the other what’s inside.

Why is this so important in leadership? All of us deal with a phenomenon that I think is universal in the human experience, and that is the impostor complex. That is the notion that if you really knew me, if you really knew me the way I know me, you would think less of me. You would think I wasn’t quite so fill-in-the-blank. All of us have that to one degree or another, and if you don’t have it, you’re an unbelievable jerk. Everybody in this room has a little bit of the impostor complex. Here’s the problem: It becomes a double bind in communication between leader and underling. If we’re going to have an effective communication, but they’re afraid of being exposed, I have to give them the comfort of knowing I will never hurt them or expose them.

I’m the director of the FBI. If one of my underlings speaks to me, I can hurt them in ways that would last, simply with a sound. I could just go, “Pffft.” I need to create an environment where they feel safe enough to overcome their impostor complex and take a chance with me.

Here’s the double bind part: I have an impostor complex. To send people signals with my shoulders, with my words, with my face that they are safe and I need to know what they know, what do I have to do? I have to confess weakness. I have to confess, by the very act of listening in the real way, that I don’t know enough. That requires me to take a risk—to overcome my impostor complex and risk being exposed. A leader, I think, has to obsess on this. Knowing that all of us are caught in this double bind, to be able to find out what’s going on so we can all get better, I have to overcome my own impostor complex. I need to obsess on listening.

Let’s come back to where I started. I need to have enough confidence to be humble. We’re spending a lot of time in the FBI trying to orient our selection processes, our mentoring, our coaching, our growing, and our evaluating of people to find these attributes. They are more about who you are than what you’ve done. Often, organizations spend a lot of time saying, “Well, Sally ticks these boxes, and Joan ticks those boxes.” They don’t have the conversation go further than that. But the conversation has to be, “So, what was she like in those roles? What did she show about her values and her abilities in those roles that help us understand that she’s going to be successful more broadly?”

Something else that’s the core of good leadership is a word used a lot—judgment. I’d like to explain why I use it a lot and what I mean by it. The mark of a great leader, of a great lawyer, of a great anything is judgment.

Intelligence is the ability to solve a riddle, to master an equation, to define a set of facts. Judgment is very different than intelligence. Judgment is the ability to orbit an answer, a set of facts, and see it as it might be seen through the eyes of others or move it to a different place and time. It’s the ability to think, “What would that be like if it was over here, or if it was two years from now? How would it be seen by different people with different approaches to life?” That’s judgment.

Intelligence is fairly common. Judgment, in my experience, is quite rare. I’m not sure exactly where it comes from. I think it comes from how you were raised and making a lot of mistakes and then learning from them. Saying to yourself, “Ooh, I did that. That really angered people. Okay, got to remember that.” Eventually, you develop the ability to orbit a situation.

Whether you know it or not, as a law student, you’re actually learning the basics of judgment. What do you learn in law school? You’re taught to question assumptions. To think about it differently if it was in a different court, a different time, if I changed a fact, if I offered you a different approach to it. You’re actually learning, whether you know it or not, how to orbit a situation and see it from different eyes. To see it through different biases and perspectives, to see how it would change if the law moved in a certain way. Whether you know it or not, you’re actually practicing the mechanics of judgment.

My suggestion to you, if you’re going to be great lawyers or great leaders, is to cultivate that. Be intentional about that. It requires more than just practicing cases. It requires you to try and understand how people are perceiving situations, how they are perceiving you.

And it requires something else that might seem weird.

Judgment is protected and nurtured by getting away from work, by stepping away from whatever it is you’re doing. That physical distance from whatever you’re grappling with aids your ability to orbit a situation and see it through the eyes of others. Tired people, people working too hard, have their judgment impaired.

I mentioned tired. I actually tell all new employees at the FBI that I expect them to sleep. Sounds weird? Sleeping is not a moral failure. Sleeping is important for a whole lot of reasons. Among them is the neurochemical process of judgment.

What’s going on when you’re sleeping? Your brain is mapping and connecting and drawing inferences and helping you make sense of a complicated life or a situation. You arise physically refreshed in a way that allows you to step back to your work and see it in different ways. There is a great danger for lawyers and for everybody in the FBI, given the nature of our mission, that we will neglect sleep and that it will impair our judgment. That’s one of the things that we risk neglecting.

This is a part I suspect they tease me about behind my back, but another one of my expectations for my employees is that they will love somebody. The problem with the work we do—protecting the American people—is that we can convince ourselves that we will get back to fill-in-the-blank later —children, relationships, parents, friends, girlfriends, boyfriends—whoever it is in our lives we call loved ones. We think, “I’ll get back to that, because I’ve got to do this thing.”

Lawyers do that a tremendous amount, too. There’s a great get-back-to-it in the legal profession. The problem is we really shouldn’t have to tell people in the FBI that there’s no getting back. Bad things really do happen to good people. When you turn to go back, they won’t be there.

As I said, I have five kids. I’ve experienced more than most humans. The experience of a 2-year-old running across the floor on unsteady legs to greet you when you come in the door—I say to my people, “Do not miss that!” It’s the right thing to do, but it will protect you, and nurture you, and help you to maintain that thing that allows you to exercise power responsibly, which is judgment.

That’s why I order to you to sleep, and I order you to love somebody. I don’t mean those two things to be connected, by the way.

So that’s how I think about leadership and certain attributes of it. That’s how I think about judgment, which is at the core of being great, no matter what you choose to do in life, and some of the ways in which judgment is nurtured and protected.

I’m going to speak tomorrow at a high school in Manhattan, a Loyola school where my nephew attends. I’m going to be an impressive speaker, as I usually am with kids. I’ll just get one chance to talk to them, and I’ll tell you why.

What I say to young audiences is, “Look kids, life is short. Bad things happen to good people.”

They’re like, “Oh my Lord!”

But I say to them, “Look, if all you do is live life forward, if all you do is strive for the next thing, which is really important—the good grades, getting a promotion, getting a nicer house, getting a nicer car, saving some money, and getting recognition—if that’s all you do, there’s a danger that you’ll miss what matters.”

I will encourage them to do something weird and depressing: close their eyes, and imagine themselves old and about to die. You can see why I’m not a frequent return speaker.

I say, “Look, I hope you’re old and grey at that point. You’re at the end of your life. Close your eyes. Look back. Ask this question: Who do I want to have been?”

I tell them, “The reason I tell you to ask it that way is because from that vantage point, the smoke is cleared.”

Augustus said, “Human honor is that smoke which has no weight.” The smoke is cleared. All this—cars money, plaques on the wall, honors—forget it. What matters will come into view. Who do you want to have been?

Everybody’s answer will be different, except I hope part of everybody’s answer will be, “I was someone who, with whatever ability I had, tried to do something to help people immediately.” That’s why the FBI was formed. You do not make much money working for the FBI. You will not get famous working for the FBI. But you will be rich beyond belief if you look at it from that vantage point.

That’s my advice to kids, and that’s my advice to people in law school who are about to graduate.

I ache for a lot of my friends from law school who had a chance to do public service work, which is hard to do long term, but didn’t even try it when they could have. I ache for them for how they’re going to answer that question. My advice to young people in law school and college is to think about the answer to the question now, and try and make a contribution that will make you a person of value. You will have made a contribution that will be lasting, and, by that, become richer than you’d ever imagine.

That’s my spiel to you. Thank you for listening to me.