Mike Bland

James Comey on leadership at Mount Vernon

James Comey's George Washington Leadership Lecture was one of the most outstanding speeches I've ever heard in my life.

- Alexandria
Tags: U.S. history, leadership

Before I get into it, just a reminder to the audience that this is a personal blog. Though most of my posts have been of a technical nature, or pertain to the culture of a particular technology company, I can and will discuss many other matters of interest to me. In fact, I’m about to go into high gear on that. So if you’re only reading for the tech bits, don’t worry, there’s more to come, and feel free to skip any of the posts in between.

Since resigning from the government back in March, I’ve been deeply contemplating the nature of leadership and culture change, and have read a few books on early United States history for insight and inspiration. Mostly I’ve focused on the Virginians, naturally: Washington, Madison, Jefferson. Hamilton’s a huge blip on the radar of nearly every book I’ve read, so I know I have to study him soon, but I’ve yet to brave the massive biography by Ron Chernow that my best friend’s wife (a history scholar) lent me a few months ago. Really, that thing’s probably about as thick as all the other books I’ve read this year combined.

I’ll post more about the specific books and insights eventually, but I want to highlight this fact to provide context for a number of recent activities of mine. First, a lot of that material shaped what’s become my “standard” presentation these days, The Convergence of Wills, in which I try to connect the principles underpinning Agile and DevOps practices to those that provide the foundation for our nation and our society. Second, I’ve availed myself of the opportunity to attend events at Mount Vernon, where scholars and other distinguished figures present their books, their research, and their perspectives on the present state of the union as a consequence of the actions and influence of George Washington and the other Founders.

Last night, I attended the George Washington Leadership Lecture by current FBI Director James Comey, and I think it might’ve changed my life. Knowing nothing about Comey or what to expect from his reflections on leadership, I became awestruck at the depth of his thoughts, his accessible presentation of them, and how clearly he himself embodied the principles he enumerated as key to effective leadership. But don’t take it from me; see for yourself:

FBI Director James Comey’s George Washington Leadership Lecture at Mount Vernon.

There’s so much in this talk that I want to unpack, first in my mind and then in a series of posts. But to outline those themes that I can just remember off the top of my head without reviewing the video:

  • Comey mentions how we often evaluate leaders backwards, by first looking at their skills and experience, then their personal attributes, and then hope they embody good values. He argues that we should start with evaluating values, and then attributes, because good leaders can learn whatever skills they need to be effective.
  • He identified two pairs of seemingly contradictory qualities that he believes are the mark of great leaders: kindness and toughness; and confidence and humility.
  • He pointed out that often as leaders we expect to be outstanding at speaking, but that it’s more important to be outstanding at listening.
  • He mentioned that we often expect leaders to also be brilliant “doers”, but that that’s rarely, if ever, the case. As an analogy, he posited that the best rocket scientist in a group probably won’t be the best choice to lead and manage the rest of the group.
  • He delineated the difference between intellectual brilliance and the smarts that come from exercising sound judgment.

Throughout the lecture, he drew upon accounts of George Washington’s actions and character to underscore his point.

The “leader vs. doer” distinction especially resonated with me, because I believe it’s one of the biggest conundrums I’ve struggled with practically my entire life. I believe I’ve demonstrated some ability and success as a leader at times, and some ability and success as a doer at others; but in retrospect, I believe I’m beginning to see how not making a clear choice between the two, depending on the situation, has ultimately hampered my effectiveness. Again, I intend to explore this in future posts.

As a bonus, during the Q&A session near the end, Comey offered his thoughts on the encryption vs. law enforcement debate, and I was pleasantly shocked and surprised by his response. After acknowledging that ubiquitous encryption has indeed made law enforcement much more challenging—at which point I honestly expected to begin to roll my eyes as he’d begin arguing for governmental backdoors in commercial encryption products—he actually spoke up in strong support of using encryption everywhere. However, he then pointed out that there hasn’t been a clear acknowledgment of the shift in the country’s social contract that is happening largely without our awareness.

He mentioned that before encryption, there was never a guarantee of absolute privacy, that if the government, following appropriate laws and procedures, determined it was necessary to gain access to information in order to defend the people and the Constitution of the United States, it could issue a warrant and compel the disclosure of that information. With strong encryption readily accessible and used by everyone—which, again, _he supports_—that ability ceases to exist. He didn’t argue at all that the government needed a means to break encryption, but called for a broader discussion regarding the impact that the loss of this law enforcement capability will have on American society, whether we’re fully aware of and accept the cost/benefit trade-off, and what alternative approaches might take its place.

I feel very fortunate to’ve had the opportunity to attend Director Comey’s lecture, and feel transformed by the experience. I’d be interested in hearing what others think of the lecture as well.