My Lesson in Leadership

 In Promoting Tolerance

Leadership is put to the test daily, but never like this. The coronavirus outbreak has forced world leaders to battle with a lethal, foreign enemy. From Boris Johnson of the UK and Xi Jinping of China to the President of the United States, as global citizens, we can observe the differences in their direction in chaos. Even more so, we feel the effects of their words and actions: we are all threatened, and all seek comfort as fear and anxiety overwhelm us. 

I just finished reading A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies, & Leadership by former FBI director, James Comey. He provides an insight to his own life and experiences in government service while discussing pillars of ethical leadership. Evaluating the qualities of leaders he’s worked with, Comey transforms the lessons he learned in government into guiding life principles for communication, conformity, law, management, etc. Most importantly, he distinguishes between honesty and loyalty in leadership, where an ethical leader will always prioritize honesty to be transparent with those he/she leads. To truly care for those being directed is proven by integrity and openness in one’s guidance: this is what it means to love your country, and Mr. Comey is a man who displayed this clearly.

photo: “Flatiron Books; Associated Press”

While I was reading, I marked up the areas that stood out to me. I’d like to share my major take-aways with you: understanding what ethical leadership looks like is essential to using our votes as voices to repair the world. Now, in times of great danger to our health and our democracy, and as we prepare for an election that will redefine America, it is critical that we learn. I organized my notes here in small sections to make it easier to follow. 

On good lawyers & good leaders

  • Good lawyers assuming a leadership role in court will never overstate, overreact, or exaggerate. They state the facts, and “have no other motivation than tackling injustice and telling the truth.”
  • Good leaders are (1) kind and tough, (2) confident and humble, (3) have a “fierce commitment to balance,” (4) love what they do with a purpose, (5) are open to being challenged, (6) and choose those they lead over personal ambition–in other words, integrity. Strong, ethical leaders will balance their power with compassion and understanding. 

On bully tactics of leadership & group mentality

  • Leaders who use ‘bullying’ tactics to make them look strong and powerful are the weakest and are often the most insecure. Emperors use overconfidence and threats to push people away, which leaves their ‘subjects’ resentful of them. Their cowardice is masked by the mean attitude that hides their faults and corruption. 
  • Under a bully-style leader, one must be constantly “learning” and “adapting,” because if not, we run the risk of blind loyalty as followers. It is “easier” to “go with the crowd, to just blend in.” 
  • In a group there is often blind following, which is empty loyalty: many groups are “brainless” and thus, turn into tribes. When you recognize the faults within the group, and find what values set you apart, you seize the opportunity. You emerge as the strong one and can leverage this to become the leader. 

On meaning & purpose 

  • Successful leaders do what is right no matter what they’re faced with and can overcome any challenge by seizing the opportunities they bring. 
  • In times of pain, challenge, and loss, there is always opportunity and meaning. It is “our duty to ensure that something good comes from suffering.” A strong leader will “channel grief into purpose,” and this way, “evil” will never triumph. 

On lies & cover-ups

  • Telling the first, and a single lie is the most difficult. The second, third, and ones to follow become easier and easier to tell. Eventually, these lies become habitual and turn into pathological lying. Consequences will gradually grow graver as the “path” opens to “bigger” and more serious lies.
  • Habitual liars are so dangerous because they “surround themselves with other liars” and their circle narrows over time. Only those “willing to lie and tolerate lies” will remain, and are given preferential treatment and benefits. 
  • Administrations and tight-knit organizations run the risk of blind loyalty and habitual lying, as they oppose honest, critical feedback, and will do anything in their power to protect the image of their organization. 

On personal bias, discovery, & decisions

  • Research with a mindset geared for confirmation bias is worthless because it doesn’t challenge/open up your eyes to anything new; in fact, it is harmful because it narrows your perspective and prevents us from changing our mind.
  • When making decisions or reading something you concur with, always doubt and challenge yourself before completely agreeing with it or executing the decision you’ve made. “Doubt is not weakness, it is wisdom.”
  • Wait until the last minute to make decisions and stay humble/open in the process. Hard decisions are the ones we often need to make the fastest and with the least information in our hands. If we wait for the most information to be put in our hands or information that is especially urgent, our decisions will yield a more effective outcome for all stakeholders
  • Own up to your mistakes, never ignore them. Holding yourself accountable makes you a better leader, enhances your reputation, and shapes your responsibility as a human being. 

On independence & leadership

  • Separating yourself from the group, or being an outsider/independent influencer is always for the better: this promotes transparency, honesty, and prevents herd mentality from plaguing the administration. Keeping the distance prevents a conflict of interest.
  • No “benchmarking:” always push to improve, never be satisfied. With sound judgment, you will have sound exercise of power. 
  • Being honest in an affectionate way shows you truly care about those you lead. In emergency situations, find the best way to direct and deliver your message. Don’t yell, don’t overreact: “effective leaders almost never need to yell…guilt and affection are far more powerful motivators than fear.” 

On listening & conversation

  • There are two different types of listening–one where the listener is processing what the speaker is saying, and one where the listener is simply preparing his talking points and ignoring the speaker. The one mentioned second is what Mr. Comey coins as “The Washington Listen.” 
  • Comey uses Obama’s listening skills as an example as how leaders should communicate in conversation: “draw out perspectives different from” your own, “face the speaker,” don’t interrupt them, use your facial expressions, posture, and small sounds to indicate you are engaged. Once they’re done speaking, ask questions to prove you were “tracking” what they said. 

On intelligence & judgement

  • Good leaders always look to expand their abilities of judgement, and are not fixated on becoming ONLY more intelligent: a leader with good judgement will lead more effectively & ethically than one who is just intelligent.
  • Intelligence is having the ability to collect facts, report them, memorize information, or solve a problem. Judgement is seeing those facts from diverse perspectives and being able to apply them to any situation, anywhere, and to anyone.
  • Those with good judgement can truly understand the effects of their words and actions on different people

On IQ & EQ:

  • A good leader trains themselves to think that everything they see/hear isn’t always about them. Understand that people are more worried about the purpose of a certain cause more than you as a leader. A leader simply directs and guides us to achieve that cause, the leader is not the central purpose of it.
  •  Good leaders and good followers will keep documents, memos, and notes of encounters, meetings, conversations, etc. that stand out to them. We simply can’t remember EVERYTHING, and it is important that if we face something unusual or fishy, that we keep it on record. It’s likely to serve you well in the future.

 As an aspiring political figure wanting to make positive change, Comey’s words deeply resonated with me. I found his interpretations relevant not only to the current global political landscape, but specific to the fight leaders are entrenched in against COVID-19. County, state, and federal administrations are all under immense pressure as this virus spread so quickly and took so many innocent lives. I want to say that each leader is trying their best to restore health, safety, and prosperity in their people. I hope they worry about the purpose over their personal ambitions. I hope that they truly love their country–that they love those they lead each and everyday more than themselves. Unfortunately, situations of crisis provide leaders a platform to seize power and override balance. Integrity and justice become secondary, and often sink below the dark waters of lies and corruption. 

Now is not the time to pretend. It’s not the time to just look strong; it’s the time to be strong. Strong leaders recognize their faults, hold themselves accountable, and use sound judgement to exercise sound power. They will constantly remind themselves that times have changed, forcing them to adapt and take honest feedback. A transparent leader will listen to experts who give them advice from their perspective, one that comes from a whole different field. An open mind brings incredible results. To yield positive outcomes, a leader must be effective in his direction–confidence weighed by humility, toughness weighed by kindness, fear weighed by love. Balance is key, and boundaries cannot be overstepped: our civil liberties matter, our economy matters, and most of all, our lives matter. 

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