There was a time when his name was not a household word in the United States. But that was long ago. Whether it was his eye-popping involvement in the 2016 presidential election to his abrupt firing to now, upon the release of his new book, former FBI Director James Comey has been at the center of some critical political controversies.
For now, most of the public will rely on their own politics to judge the fierce fight between Comey and a furious President Trump. But, that aside, experts say there is much to learn, especially from his widely watched interview on television earlier this week. Indeed, from purpose to presentation to picking the right people, here’s what Korn Ferry consultants see as the universal leadership takeaways from Comey’s interview and the entire fight in general:
An organization needs purpose—and a leader has to embody that purpose.
Comey pointed out how truth underpins the nation’s greater purpose. As he said, “[Truth] is what we are. And if we lose tethering of our leaders to that truth, what are we?” In his view, Trump does not embody that purpose. The president, of course, has expressed a similar view of Comey’s veracity and leadership skills at the bureau.
Politics aside, experts agree that, to succeed, organizations need to commit to a set of values and then appoint leaders who reflect those values. Having a purpose serves as a “guiding light” that can help executives navigate tough decisions and unite their team, says Jane Stevenson, global leader for CEO Succession and vice chairman of Board & CEO Services at Korn Ferry. “In a situation where that guiding light is not present, you tend to look at the challenge at hand in isolation and potentially even at odds with the people around you.”
Surround yourself with people who will challenge you.
When asked to describe his own flaws, Comey pointed to his ego. Left unchecked, he knows it can “bleed over into pride, into not being open-minded to the fact that I could be wrong.” His method of preventing that has to do with surrounding himself with people who challenge his thinking—or, as he says, “poke at you, poke at you, poke at you.”
Indeed, experts say it’s exceptionally valuable for leaders to surround themselves with people who are willing to speak up. “The more power you have, the less candor you get,” says Stevenson. “I always say to my team, ‘Please don’t tell me I look lovely as I’m about to jump off a cliff.’ I would much rather know what I’m up against.”
Your words—and presentation—always matter.
One of Comey’s major regrets was how he handled the communication around the FBI’s investigation of Hillary Clinton’s private email use. He especially regrets “Seacresting” the announcement that the FBI would not be recommending charges against Clinton. (The reference is to TV host Ryan Seacrest’s tendency to jump to a commercial break just before revealing the show’s winners and losers.) Comey says of his botched delivery: “I made people wait till the very end to say what the conclusion was we were reaching, when folks wanted to hear that at the beginning.”
Trump, too, has found himself in the middle of a number of communication dilemmas. The key takeaway here is that stakeholders are always listening, and if you as a leader aren’t clear, you can cause big problems.
“One of the characteristics of great leadership is transforming complexity to clarity, and it’s almost an impossible job because complexity is dynamic, not static,” says Kevin Cashman, global leader of CEO & Executive Development at Korn Ferry. “It’s a dilemma that involves knowing that you have to be agile and clear now, but also that you have to be agile and clear later if the situation changes.”
Be emotionally intelligent.
Comey’s ego and Trump’s high level of achievement orientation appear to have both helped and hurt them in their careers. What that has brought to light is the importance of leadership that is guided by emotional intelligence, which involves self-awareness, conflict management, and empathy. Indeed, experts say the more emotional-intelligence skills a leader has, the more well-rounded and more successful they are likely to be in the long term. “Emotionally intelligent leaders see the whole person as well as the needs, concerns, and fears of others,” says Cashman. “Connecting their leadership to the ‘we’ is what makes it sustainable.”
Indeed, research shows that leaders who have four to seven of the 12 competencies related to emotional intelligence were likely to retain 53% of their team members for at least five years.
Sometimes you’ll end up in a no-win situation.
When deciding to tell the world whether or not the FBI would be reopening its investigation into Clinton’s emails, Comey found himself in a lose-lose situation: He knew he’d face criticism for the timing of the announcement (just weeks before the election), but he also knew that if he didn’t reveal the investigation, that would be a problem as well.
All leaders can find themselves in a similar situation where any action (or inaction) will have a bad outcome. In those cases, it’s important for leaders to analyze their options and take the road that best preserves their self-respect and values. “At the end of the day, you have to do what allows you to maintain self-respect and believe in your values,” says Stevenson. “That doesn’t mean you’ll always make the right choice, or the well-received or popular choice. My advice is you never want to sacrifice that.”