Was James Comey an ethical leader–making sense of the evidence

ex FBI Director James ComeyJames Comey, the ex FBI director continues to arouse extreme reactions about his particular form of leadership and ethical performance.

At the start of his recent book A Higher Loyalty, he expounds at length about ethical leadership. It’s good to see this topic receive an airing from someone who, in theory, should know what it means to be an ethical leader.

Others are far less sure. In a scathing commentary in the New York Times, David Harsanyi accuses Comey of protecting his ego at the expense of the FBI and the nation.

In particular, Harsanyi refers to the proceeding of the most recent Senate Judiciary Committee. The latter focused on the Justice Department Inspector General’s report of how the FBI handled the Hillary Clinton investigation in the run-up to the 2016 election. 

The Inspector General Michael Horowitz claims that at key moments Comey clearly departed from FBI norms. His decisions, says Horowitz

“negatively impacted the public’s trust in the Justice Department and FBI.”

In his readable book, Comey claims no matter how he handled the accusations against Clinton, he just couldn’t win.  On the one hand Clinton haters expected nothing less than putting her on trial. This would be based on her security failures of using private mails for state business.comey on leadership

But Clinton supporters on the other hand would conclude any prosecution prompted by the FBI investigations would be a deliberate attempt to undermine her and her campaign.  

One definition of an ethical leaders is someone who “does the right thing”. 

Comey’s actions though,  remain open to various interpretations. For example, he claims to have sought to maximise transparency about how the FBI handled the Investigation task.

Yet in the book he admits to concluding privately that there was nothing deliberately criminal in Clinton’s actions.

Procedural purists argue the role of FBI should have been restricted to reviewing the evidence, then handing it on to the Justice department to decide what to do next.

A serious criticism of Comey’s behaviour over the Clinton Mails is  he deliberately froze out his senior colleagues in the Justice Department, before taking his controversial action of re-opening the previously closed enquiry.  

They had no real ability to stop him from acting since they were unsure about the contents of his material. In Comey’s terms he was acting to a “higher loyalty” 

As Bauer concludes after considering this self-justification:  

“…while there can be little doubt of his good faith, the nature of this loyalty is deeply personal rather than institutional.”

The longer this sorry e-mail saga continues the more convoluted it gets. One of the final questions at the Committee posed to the Inspector General Michael Horowitz was: 

“Mr. Horowitz, do you think it’s time to move on past the Hillary Clinton emails?”

The answer for many is almost certainly “yes please.” For the moment, the fundamental  question of whether Comey was an ethical leader following “a higher loyalty” cannot be answered for sure.   

Only history will give the final verdict. 


Additional source: 

For a fuller perspective on Comey’s view of ethics and the action he took, see: 
B. Bauer, James Comey’s ‘Higher Loyalty’ and His Response to the Inspector General Report, Lawfare, Tuesday, June 19, 2018

www.ethical-leadership selected by Feedspot as one of the Top 10 UK Leadership Blogs on the web.




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