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A Higher Loyalty by James Comey (8.5/10)

A Higher Loyalty (2018) is James Comey's autobiographical book on his life and career.
Indirectly, as Comey talks about the 2016 elections and why Donald Trump fired him, this is also a great book on leadership, on what it means to be a leader, and on value-adding VS value-subtracting approaches to leadership.

Bullet Summary

  • Comey fought to limit NSA's spying and the use of torture by US forces
  • Comey publicly reopened the Clinton investigation because reporters would have known anyway
  • Trump behaved like the mafia bosses in demanding loyalty

Full Summary

A Higher Loyalty doesn't just tackle the latest public events, but recount all of Comey's life.

Comey Was Bullied And Wanted to Stop Bullies

James Comey says that experiencing bullying (ie.: having been the victim of bullying) gave him a lifelong desire to help defenseless people.

My Note:
I haven't personally experienced much bullying, but that was my same reason to start The Power Moves.

Mercy Works Better Than Punishment

Comey tells the story of one of the great lessons he learned as a young kid.

Working at a local grocery store he overstacked too many crates of milk on top of each other.
When they all fell, milk started streaming down the aisle.
Comey tried to clean it up as quickly as possible, but when the boss arrived, a fair but very demanding man, he saw everything.

Boss: did you learn a lesson here?
Comey: yes
Boss: good, now clean it up

That motivated to work harder than any punishment ever did.

Rudolph Giuliani & Humility

Comey studied as a lawyer and started working for the United States Attorney’s office in New York in the years of the Rudolph Giuliani administration.

It was an exciting time as he was involved in many high profile mobster cases, including Anthony "Fat Tony" Salerno and members of the Gambino family.

Giuliani was an ambitious man, but Comey felt he lacked in humility.
Comey indeed believes that humility is an important element for all leaders and the right mindset is the one that you don't have all the answers.

Learning From Mobsters

Comey learned a lot from the Sicilian mobster running Cosa Nostra.

He says it's an organization and a form of leadership strongly based on fear.
But he believes that a leader should achieve loyalty with confidence, hard work and compassion.

Also read: how to be a leader.

Helen Fahey

Comey learned a lot about leadership working for Helen Fahey.
Contrary to Giuliani, Helen would put the team first (read Leaders Eat Last). Fahey was humble and tough at the same time, and she was humble and with a good sense of humor.

DOJ VS White House Surveillance

James Comey fought against the White House to limit the NSA's reach, especially on spying on people without warrants (Stellar Wind program).

"A Higher Loyalty" makes it seem as he was one of the main player to effectively rein in the NSA.
This part is very interesting to understand how unlawful the government can sometimes be and how bullying some high government officials can get.

Fighting Torture

James Comey also fought hard against torture in the period of the shameful Abu Ghraib scandal.

The Bush administration was still operating based on the ROJ memos immediately following the 2001 attacks, which Comey didn't believe being justified anymore.

But this time, after Bush re-election, Comey was weaker and more isolated. Alberto Gonzales, a Bush supporter and a former Comey's opponent in the NSA case, was replacing John Ashcroft as Attorney General (Comey was Deputy Attorney General, hence second in command).
Comey didn't like the situation: he believed DOJ and FBI should be independent and apolitical, but Gonzales seemed hell bent in helping out Bush instead.

When it was clear that the "enhanced interrogation system" was there to stay, Comey handed in his resignations.

6 Traits of a Great Leader

Comey lists six traits of a great leader:

  • Integrity and decency;
  • Confidence but humble;
  • A balance of toughness and kindness;
  • Transparency in their motivations;
  • Awareness that people seek meaningful work (also read Drive)
  • Understanding that words are important, but actions are more important

Comey has very good words for Obama, saying he has many of those traits and also has the touch of humor and ability to laugh. Bush had it too, says Comey, but his jokes often were at the expense of others (I believe Comey is wrong here. Obama often engaged in jokes at the expense of others and in annoying social climbing. It was just under the radar).

2016 Elections: What Really Happened

Hillary Clinton in her book What Happened blames Comey for her loss of the presidency.

What does Comey say?

Comey explains that once the FBI found a new laptop from a different case with new Clinton email, he was faced with a dilemma. Come out in the open and announce it, or keep it under wrap?
He says the press would have known anyway, as the FBI needed a court order, and at that point it would have looked as if the FBI was trying to protect Hillary.
So he decided for openness.
Up until he wrote the book, he doesn't know how much it influenced the election but he still believed it was the right decision.

Trump and Mafia Bosses

Comey says that immediately on their first meeting, before the inauguration, things didn't look good to him.

Briefed on the current threats to the United States, Trump and his team were thinking how to use that information for political gains.

Most of all, on their first dinner together, Trump repeatedly asked Comey for his loyalty. It was surreal, Comey says, and he couldn't help but link Trump's behavior to that of Sammy "The Bull" Gravano.

We've talked at length here about Trump.
Also read:

Comey, with his strong ethical foundation and distaste for bullies, never pledged allegiance to Trump.

a higher loyalty book cover


"A Higher Loyalty" is an autobiography, and it should be handled for what it is -a book written by the protagonist himself-.
That being said, simply by looking at how he moves and acts -which is not much to go by!- I trust Comey and have lots of respect for him.

I would recommend this book to anyone who wants to be in public service, with the hope they'll choose to uphold and defend the same moral and ethical values.

Get the book on Amazon

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