top of page

Comey's firing - a case of picking the wrong job or just another Trump rant?

So it is yesterday's news that President Trump fired FBI Director Comey. Yes there is plenty of scepticism from all sides of the political spectrum based on the timing of this based on Comey's role in the investigation as to whether any member of Trump's campaign team colluded with Russia to manipulate the election.

There will be many people better qualified than me who can comment on this potentially Machiavellian scenario unfolding but I don't really want to wade into the politics of what happened. I am far more interested in the human side of this and while I have empathy with James Comey for the very public and undignified end to his tenure I can hardly say that I find it either surprising or unexpected based on his recent erratic behaviour. Similarly I would be unsurprised if Travis Kalanick and Uber did not find itself in more hot water in the coming months.

Many commentators and lawmakers have taken up thousands of column inches on Director Comey's supposedly unprecedented behaviour in disclosing the live results of active investigations especially when they had such a profound impact on the American political landscape.

If you can humour me for a minute and we place Trump as the CEO of USA inc. then Comey would not even be a board member, albeit he is a very public figure who is the policeman of the organisation. Perhaps unfair to call him the head of Compliance (Risk is for the DHS and the CIA) but that is what he is there to do. Of course in real life Comey served as a board director of HSBC, and as General Counsel of Lockheed Martin so he is a well seasoned corporate lawyer - he knows what to expect, or did he, and where did it go wrong?

His appointment was confirmed by President Obama in September 2013. His role as a law keeper is one in which hundreds of millions of Americans (let's call them stakeholders) and others around the world should have complete trust in and a role which requires his investigative powers to be completely unfettered. He also needs to be a symbol of trust - robust, unshakeable and with the highest standards of ethics, his behaviour should be unimpeachable albeit he will often be thoroughly scrutinised and potentially used as a pawn by his political master which in this case is Trump the CEO.

If the scenario was played out in business it could look something like this and obviously hypothetically, again please humour me.

......Say that VW and Ford are battling it out to release the first electric car and Ford is publicly raising cash at the time. Trump is CEO and Comey head of Product Compliance at VW:

Comey announces to the DOJ: We have done some digging and found that our rival Ford has been up to no good and faked diesel emissions, here is the evidence but it is going to take some time to work it out. Of course we are squeaky clean.

Ford denies it and says prove it. VW cannot. Comey says whoops sorry we were wrong, there was something there but nothing can be done about it and it was minor adding that the DOJ will do nothing. Trump says they should all go to jail.

Just before the launch day Comey says again "aha here it is, we have more information just come to light and yes they may be at it again". Ford is crushed and VW launches first and wins all the big money.

Days later it is announced that VW in fact were the culprits and Ford had done nothing wrong. Share prices tumble, lawsuits are filed. 'Whoops' again and Comey is fired by Trump as he knew all about it and should have taken responsibility. Trump is of course blameless.......

Now before any of you say that this fake news is just not even remotely similar to what has unfolded in the US and you may have a point - it is about behaviour, leadership and taking responsibility for one's actions.

James Comey is by all accounts an eminent and well respected lawyer, he was after all Deputy Attorney General of the Department of Justice among his other achievements in commerce and government.

So this leads me to the point of this article, was he up to the job, should he and could he have better reflected before accepting the appointment that maybe his emotions would get the better of him and that the intense political pressure which would inevitably be heaped on his shoulders by taking such a role would just be too much for him. That his authenticity, trust and authority as a leader would be eroded by his somewhat equivocal actions and statements to the world about the emails of Hilary and her team. Perhaps his failure to accept responsibility for his actions was, at least publicly, the final nail in the coffin.

Of course had Hilary been elected President he may have kept his job but his actions were already slightly disturbing. He may have thought that Trump was on his side initially and who knows as it may be that the outcome was always going to be the same even if he had stuck to the rules of the game. That we will never know but in my view certainly his actions have contributed to his downfall.

The question I ask is why and what stage did such a seasoned campaigner, both politically and commercially, decide to tear up the playbook and start 'ad-libbing'. I would imagine that all of his instinct and intuition, all those years as a lawyer would have battle hardened him to spot the red flags as they appeared but for whatever reason he just chose to either ignore them or bypass them with his own rhetoric. I would ask who was his mentor and what advice were they offering. I cannot put myself in his shoes but I do understand the importance of integrity and authenticity and when we feel that it is going to be questioned the best thing that we can do is to remain honest and stick to our values and in many cases this means walking away however uncomfortable that may appear to be. It is a lesson for all of us that taking such a high profile and high pressured role only suits a very few and even then the selection process needs to be more rigorous.

Of course I sincerely hope that none of us ever have to report to such a temperamental and volatile character that is President Trump as our boss but there are many leaders and managers across industry and politics whose behaviour is tyrannical. The real question for us is do we want to expose ourselves to it, knowing that is is possibly a far braver decision to say no and if the answer is yes then what coping mechanisms do we have to allow ourselves to be truly authentic at all times. When the wheels inevitably fall off we have to take responsibility, be accountable and seek help as early as we can.

James Comey is certainly not the first and will not be the last person who appears to be very well qualified for a high profile public role only to find that their behaviour and the role ultimately defeats them. I only hope that he maintains his personal dignity in what must be a traumatic time for him.

bottom of page