Former FBI Director James Comey’s book, A Higher Loyalty, made headlines for its barbed comments about President Donald Trump. But Comey’s real subject is leadership. On the eve of the first anniversary of his being fired by Trump, Comey sat down for a wide-ranging talk on his time as a public servant, what makes a good boss, and how he rates two men he’s worked for—Trump and the latest addition to his legal team, Rudy Giuliani—as leaders.
Bloomberg Businessweek: You’ve had a lot of famous bosses, yet the one you point to as the best is Harry Howell, who ran the grocery store where you worked as a kid. What did he have that presidents and top government officials didn’t?
James Comey: The best leaders are a combination of two pairs of attributes: They’re confident people, but they also have humility to leaven that confidence, and they’re tough and kind. What made me want to please Harry so much is that he was able to create an environment where we knew he loved us but he kicked us in the butt. He was kind and tough, and he had enough confidence that he wasn’t threatened by us. Just the way he reacted to me destroying, by accident, a prototype label gun and dumping a lake of milk in the back of the store, an insecure boss could not react that way.
So you found higher levels of insecurity among top members of the federal government than you did with a grocery store manager?
Yeah. And in our current president I found a much higher level of insecurity than I did in a manager of a grocery store.
You explicitly draw comparisons between the mob and President Trump. Did you struggle with whether to include that?
Yes. In fact when the thought first occurred to me I pushed it away, convinced that it was too dramatic. And it kept coming back. And so, yes, I tried actually to not think that, but the leadership styles were so strikingly similar, that’s why it kept popping back in my head. I guess there’s some risk that people think I’m saying the president is robbing banks or breaking people’s legs like a mob leader. I mean the leadership culture is strikingly similar.
In what regard?
In that it’s entirely boss-centric. The only thing that matters is what you can do for me. How does the decision we’re going to make benefit the boss? It’s all about the boss, not about any external values or anything higher than that, and that’s the way the Cosa Nostra family is run, and that’s why the comparison kept striking me.
Back when you were a young New York prosecutor in the 1980s, your boss was Rudy Giuliani, then the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York. Was he a good leader?
No. At the time, I thought he was a cool leader. I found it very exciting to work for someone like that, but I had never led at that point. I’ve since realized that the second U.S. attorney I worked for, Helen Fahey, was a far better leader. She had enough confidence in herself to be humble and take joy in the achievements of her people. That is effective leadership in a way that I didn’t see with Rudy. I didn’t know it at the time. I thought, How cool is this? My boss is on the covers of magazines, he’s in charge of everything. I didn’t realize until later that style makes it harder to get the truth from your people and limits the circle that will talk to you.
Are you surprised to see him in his current role defending the president?
No. It would’ve surprised me if you’d asked me 20 years ago, but it doesn’t now given his public role of the last few years.
What about some of the things he’s said about you and the FBI—calling FBI agents stormtroopers and saying that you probably lied to Mueller?
I honestly don’t care about the stuff about me, because others will decide that. I care very much about the attack on the institutions, because it’s just not true. Republicans and Democrats should both knock it off, attacking the institutions of justice, because everybody needs them. It’s just a very short-sighted thing and bad for the country.
You once worked for Ray Dalio, who runs the hedge fund Bridgewater, which is notorious for its ruthless culture. What’d you learn there?
I learned about my own weaknesses. In Ray’s view, you’re failing if you’re not being honest. I have a hard time delivering feedback that’s negative, and he taught me that you’re duty-bound to be accurate.
Let’s talk about Bob Mueller. You inherited an FBI from him in 2013 that you describe as very buttoned-up and still had an overhang from the time of J. Edgar Hoover, where the main motivation was to tell the boss what he wanted to hear. Did that surprise you?
Not entirely. I’d come from eight years in the private sector where transparency is something that’s always talked about. I was a little surprised, though maybe I shouldn’t have been knowing that Hoover had been in charge for half a century, that it was less modern than I’d expected in terms of that culture.
It’s ironic that an agency dedicated to finding the truth struggles from a lack of transparency.
That struck me, too. And a lot of what I did during my four years as director was to get people to feel safe enough around me to tell me the truth.
How’d you do that?
In lots of ways, some small, some big. I tried to issue an edict on how people should dress around me, with no outer garments. If you dress like you’re in church, you’ll act like you’re in church. I took the wild step of wearing blue shirts, and it’s something everybody noticed—it was a signal that I wanted a different approach.
Do you think Mueller struck some as too intimidating, and the effect on people kept them from opening up? Did you try to be more approachable?
I think that’s fair. I think he’s a better leader than I in some respects. I don’t know that I could’ve accomplished what he did after 9/11 because I don’t know that I’m strong enough and tough enough. When I inherited the FBI, my mission was to get it to relax a little bit and open up. My goal was to get people to laugh more and to communicate with me in a way that was different than Bob.
What went through your mind when you heard Mueller had been made special counsel?
Surprise at first, and then relief, because I thought it was important to pursue the possibility that there were tapes of my conversations with the president, and if there was someone who was going to go get the tapes, it would be Bob Mueller.
Other than Trump’s tweets do you have reason to believe tapes exist?
What went through your mind when you learned that Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein provided legal cover for the rationale behind your firing?
I was surprised, given my encounters with him in the days before. We met privately for him to seek my advice about how to do his job. Four days later he authored that memo. So that surprised me and disappointed me. If you really had concerns about my performance as FBI director, you would’ve told me that instead of leading me to the opposite. And then when I read it, I thought, that’s not the real deal.
Do you worry the Mueller investigation is taking too long?
My view is that it’s moving very quickly. A whole lot of evidence has emerged in the charges they’ve brought. He’s got a really talented team. It’s not even been a year since he was appointed.
Are you surprised that the Republican Party has turned on the law-and-order institutions in the U.S.?
Yes. I’m shocked, disappointed, and disgusted.
Do you worry about the future of the GOP?
I do. I don’t know what it stands for, honestly, and it’s going to have to answer those questions. What are the values that the Republican Party stands for? Rule of law? Really?
Are you still a Republican?
When did you leave the party?
It kind of left me is how I think about it.
Would you ever consider running for office?
No. That’s not my gig. It’s not in my DNA. I don’t want to have to ask strangers for money.