A tale of two people.

The political turmoil in the States has thrown up the best of people and the worst of people. James Comey’s autobiographical reflection on leadership presents a picture of the both.

Obviously, autobiography is a partial view, which it would be foolish to accept uncritically. Reassuringly perhaps, the self Mr Comey is willing to reveal to us is not without fault. He confesses to weaknesses, sins of omission and commission including bullying a fellow student when at University and lying about playing basketball in high school.

He makes no claims to infallibility, indeed quite the contrary recognising that key decisions he has made in his career may have been wrong. He appreciates how difficult it is to understand how motives shape decisions consciously or unconsciously particularly his own. If there is one thing he is keen to convince the reader, it is that, in his professional career he has always tried to act in good faith according to the law and the Constitution of the United States. He presents himself as a fallible human being but a deeply patriotic person who aims high in his professional behaviour.

The book considers the events and people in his life he believes shaped him as a leader. Whether or not he genuinely absorbed those influences and lived up to the high standards he describes only those he led would be able to answer. However his descriptions of what good leadership looks like are compelling and worth reading.

Whilst the leadership style of President Trump is not addressed directly until the end of the book one cannot but feel the first 210 pages create, consciously or not, a sharp point of contrast. Its elements include the ability to listen actively, to seek out the opinions of others and see the value of those that contradict your own. It understands the difference between intelligence and judgement. Intelligence being the ability to “…master a set of facts.” Judgement on the other hand being the ability to “…say what those facts mean and what effects they will have on other audiences.”

Comey, a Republican voter, describes what he thinks are characteristics of good leaders but his examples  are absent of partisan bias. He describes characteristics and behaviours of President Obama he thinks are important including a good sense of humour which he believes to be a good indicator of a persons ego. The ability to laugh at someone else’s joke reveals a degree of self confidence in a willingness to look a little silly as you laugh and an appreciation of others.

Central to Comey’s view of a good leader is personal confidence. Being comfortable in your own skin, knowing yourself, including your weaknesses as well as your strengths. Such confidence facilitates the ability to be humble. To recognise that a good leader does not have to pretend infallibility, rather they recognise others may have more to offer on certain matters and indeed provide better insight into an issue. A good leader blends confidence and humility in a mutually reinforcing whole.

Comey is clear a leader cannot take respect it has to be earned. Earned through consistency of words and actions. Living the values you espouse. He understands that as a leader you are constantly under scrutiny. Some will be willing you to exhibit actions which contradict your words, the vast majority will be looking for examples of what you value. Your words and actions are signposts, you constantly have to take care are pointing in the right direction.

Access to truth, for Comey is seen as fundamental to good leadership. Loyalty of those around you means having people who will challenge you with vigour when they think you are making a mistake. Helping you discover the uncomfortable truth as opposed to reassuring your convenient prejudice.  Loyalty expressed through flattery magnifies errors when whatever “the boss” says is agreed to as right. This is the loyalty offered to  the Mafia boss.

There are lots of textbooks on leadership but if you want a passionate guide from someone who at the very least has occupied some very senior leadership positions you could do a lot worse than read this book. Comey sets the bar high and from his autobiography you do get the impression he measured himself against it. He clearly reflected a lot on leadership and thought deeply about it.

And then of course there is President Trump. Clearly, the fact that President Trump sacked him will have shaped Mr Comey’s views about the man. However, the manner of his sacking, reported live on TV speaks volumes to the leadership style of the man who now ‘leads the free world”.

In summary, Comey was in the FBI’s Los Angeles field office speaking to a room full of staff when he saw the news of his sacking being reported on the TV screen running across the back of the room. Once it had sunk in that this was not a joke he got onto his assistant back in Washington who had been given a letter which she scanned and emailed to Comey which fired him with “immediate effect”.

If Comey had been guilty of some act of gross misconduct this would have been a shocking and deplorable way to handle his dismissal. The ostensible reasons in the advice given by the Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein were, ironically, about his handling of the Hilary Clinton email investigation which had been conducted 6 months previously, before Trump had been elected to the Presidency.

Whilst this manner of sacking might seem unprofessional it does not plumb the depths of the sacker. The issue of how Comey would get home arose. The Deputy Director of the FBI, Andrew McCabe, who had suddenly become the Acting Director of the agency, decided it was appropriate to return Mr Comey to Washington in the official plane with his security detail.

Millions saw the return of the sacked Director live on TV, including, it seems, the President. Many would have thought this national coverage of his return a public humiliation. It was, but seemingly not enough for the President. The next day Trump rang the new Acting Director and asked how Comey had been allowed to use the official plane to get back to Washington. When McCabe explained he had authorised it, “The President exploded.” He ordered that Comey should never again be allowed into any FBI property anywhere. This meant his staff had to box up his personal effects and take them to his home.

Are we at the bottom yet? No. The Deputy Director’s wife had once run unsuccessfully as a democrat for the Virginia state legislature. Apparently in his fury with McCabe Trump asked “Your wife lost her election in Virginia, didn’t she?” When McCabe replied “Yes, she did.” Trump said “Ask her how it feels to be a loser.”

Confidence, humility, judgement? No. Petty, spiteful, vindictive? Yes.

In the epilogue Comey manages to maintain a sense of optimism. Whilst he deplores those who stand silent and provide tacit assent to Trump’s outrageous behaviour, he believes after the forest fire which is the Trump presidency the United States will refocus and restore the balance between the executive, legislative and judicial arms of government. We can only hope his optimism is well founded.

Having read this book I think about the lift test. Would I want to be stuck in a lift with Comey. He sounds genuine and interesting so the answer is yes. If it were Trump? I’d jump.

 

A Higher Loyalty: Truth Lies and Leadership. James Comey. Flatiron Books 2018

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McMafia strike in Washington?

In the wake of what appears to be an assassination attempt on Sergei Skripal sponsored by Russia there is renewed interest in the death of other Russian exiles, including that of one Mikhail Lesin found dead in his hotel room in Washington in November 2015.

Mikhail Lesin had been a very prominent Russian figure with close links to Putin having been responsible for setting up Russia Today (RT) the international television station funded by the Russian government aiming to provide a Russian viewpoint on major global events. He went on from there to head up Gazprom Media the largest Russia media holding company which, in 2000, controversially acquired the last nationwide independent television network.

In 2014, quite suddenly and without explanation, Lesin resigned from Gazprom Media and left Russia for a home he had set up in the United States. What happened after that is not all that clear.

Following his death, in March 2016 it was concluded the cause of his death was “blunt force injuries to the head”. However other “blunt force injuries” were also identified on his neck, torso, upper extremities and lower extremities. This sounds like he had “blunt force injuries” all over his body.

There followed a 12 month period of investigation to determine the manner of his death. This included a Grand Jury investigation local police and the FBI. The Department of Justice concluded that his death was “accidental” following heavy drinking. He had apparently got so drunk he kept falling down until he killed himself. Not a common cause of death even in Glasgow.

The plot thickens when you discover that the hotel room in which Lesin was staying was paid for by the US Department of Justice. The reason for this being he was due to meet with the officers from the Department of Justice the following day to be interviewed about the operation of RT.

In summer 2017 three FBI agents spoke to BuzzFeed claiming Lesin was bludgeoned to death with a baseball bat. Perhaps it could be argued that, in his drunken stupor, he had beaten himself to death with a baseball bat. Not a view the FBI agents favoured saying no one in the FBI thought this was anything other than murder. This generated a fair amount of interest at the time although no change in the official conclusion about the manner of death being accidental.

Then late last week BuzzFeed revealed a secret report had been produced in 2016 which had indicated that Lesin had fallen out with a Russian oligarch. The oligarch, who had close links to Putin, had then commissioned the Russian secret service to frighten Lesin. Whether they had been over enthusiastic in their work or the mission had been changed in the light of his impending discussions with the FBI is unknown.

Interestingly the author of that report was Christopher Steele. The same Christopher Steele that produced the report on Russian attempts to influence the US election in Trumps favour. Incidentally, the Same Christopher Steele who is now alleged to be on a Kremlin hit list according to ex KGB spy Boris Karpichkov who is now in hiding in the UK. All of this may have sounded like conspiracy theory 10 years ago but now it is difficult to see as anything other than an extra-judicial state killing.

For me there are two interesting questions if the stories about Lesin are true. Firstly, how on earth did the Department of Justice come to the conclusion that it did about the death? Even if you rule our Russian involvement Lesin would have had to have been one of the most accident prone people in the world to keep falling down until he killed himself, however drunk he was.

The second question is about the Steele claim that Lesin fell out with an oligarch who then used the forces of the Russian state to deal with the matter. If true this betrays an integration of personal, criminal and state power which reinforces a picture of the world where crime and politics are increasingly interlinked. Where the economic resources of the state are plundered by rapacious politicians and state power is used to protect and sustain outright criminal behaviour.

The evidence against Mr Putin mounts every day. He is clearly no friend of democracy, doing what he can to undermine the process in the west as he subverts it at home. The latest diplomatic response to the attempted assassination of Sergei Skripal has been impressive. It must however be followed up by actions on the finances of Russian oligarchs with links to the Kremlin. For some time now there have been calls for the City of London to look much more closely at the sources of money flowing through the capital from Russia and a range of other locations. These must not be seen as alarmist propaganda threatening the global finance centre’s future. On the contrary failure to take urgent and substantial action will put at risk the long term credibility of the City. Ultimately losing that credibility will cost dearly.