The Leadership Lesson Behind the Comey Hearing

Agility, mindfulness and other skills can help in tough talks with the boss.

A call from the boss comes late in the afternoon. You cancel your dinner plans, go up the elevator and make your way to your boss’ office. It’s just the two of you, and after small talk, your boss asks you to do something professionally that makes you feel personally uncomfortable.

If you put politics aside (yes, it can be done) today’s much-followed testimony of dethroned FBI Director James Comey highlights a dilemma that isn’t uncommon for anyone working up the leadership ladder: what to do when you strongly disagree with what the boss wants. Comey, in his Senate testimony brought up a host of issues whose facts are still in dispute, but experts are clear on what skills leaders need to handle a value-shaking situation: agility, emotional intelligence, and courage.

Leaders need to be agile, having the ability to adapt and be comfortable with unanticipated changes and situations. That doesn’t mean agile leaders don’t have core beliefs. Indeed, they are fully aware of their core values and, if things go badly, learn from that adversity. Too often, people don’t think about which principles they hold most dear until faced with a stressful situation, says Korn Ferry Senior Vice President Stuart Crandell. Unprepared, they then act impulsively and potentially do something rash or self-defeating.

Being emotionally intelligent (the capacity to be aware of, control, and express one's emotions, and to manage interpersonal relationships well) can keep you from making a difficult situation even worse. Having control of your emotions is critical; being “hijacked” by your emotions sabotages your ability to make good decisions. Up-and-coming leaders can learn how to practice mindfulness, the ability to take a pause, calm your mind, and look at a problem objectively before making any decisions, says Steve Safier, a Korn Ferry Senior Client Partner in Leadership Development and the Global Human Resources Center of Excellence. On the flip side, it can help to put yourself in your boss’ shoes, too. Having empathy and understanding the boss’ motivations can help you determine alternatives that could be more palatable to you and still satisfy the boss.

The courage comes in, of course, with how you respond to your boss’ request. Naturally there are laws or regulations that may govern your response, but these situations don’t always require your boss asking you to do something inherently wrong or illegal. Crandell, for example, worked with an executive who vehemently disagreed with his boss’ corporate strategy.

Few people respond well to righteous indignation, but bosses can be swayed to do different things if you use fact-based arguments and propose rational alternatives. Even then, the very fact of disagreeing with the boss may end up badly, Crandell says, “But you’re willing to take the risk in service of values that you hold dear.”