Before former FBI Director James Comey took the stage to deliver the keynote on day two of Enfuse 2018, the audience got to experience BTO’s classic song, “Let It ride,” at approximately 100 decibels. Meant to get us psyched up for Comey, the song’s lyrics delivered an apt but perhaps unintended message. “Good bye, hard life,” the song blared, before asking, “Don’t cry. Would you let it ride?”
Indeed, saying goodbye to a hard life and not crying seems to be Comey’s guiding ethos these days. He’s moving on from a rough period in his career, but he is very much not letting things ride. Instead, he was reflective. He asked some difficult questions about the nature of privacy and offered insights into leadership at a time that OpenText CEO Mark Barrenechea described as “A tough few years for policy.”
Admitting a Mistake
Comey led off by admitting a mistake. “I screwed up the conversation on encryption,” he confessed. He was explaining his initial reaction to Google and Apple’s announcements of mobile encryption capabilities. At the moment, he expressed a sentiment along the lines of, “With this move, the worst people in the world could go right off of our radar screens. Why would we allow this to happen? We’re making terrorists immune to law enforcement and the Fourth Amendment. How on earth could this be something to brag about?”
As he reflected on his reaction, though, he felt he did not process the facts adequately. Rather than being just a green light for terrorists and pedophiles, the encryption moves by Apple and Google had actually highlighted a truly difficult tension in American life. “Like most people, I had approached this as struggle between privacy and security. How do we balance our right to privacy with our need for (and government’s obligation to provide) safety?” His view evolved. “This is really about security versus security. How do we protect our privacy, our money and ourselves while we keep our nation safe?”
With this move, the worst people in the world could go right off of our radar screens. Why would we allow this to happen? We’re making terrorists immune to law enforcement and the Fourth Amendment. How on earth could this be something to brag about?
Reflecting on the Nature of Leadership
Why does Comey think he made an error in judgment in his initial, hasty response to the encryption news? In his keynote, he reflected extensively on the nature of leadership. To him, his shoot-from-the-hip impulses about the risks of encryption flowed from a lapse in his usual tendency to surround himself with people who act as “guardrails” on him during important decisions.
According to Comey, the best leaders view decisions and the management of others along multiple dimensions. In contrast to organized crime figures he has prosecuted, and some unnamed politicians who frame all issues in terms of themselves, a good leader is able to go higher. A good leader can view a decision or a management relationship in terms of what he calls “external references” like values and institutional integrity. It was this thought process that led him to re-assess his earlier views on encryption.
Comey framed leadership as balancing confidence with humility. A leader needs to have both and should avoid tipping too far in one direction or another. He warned against the “seduction of certainty,” where our confirmation bias keeps us pegged to a comfortable but incorrect position. In this mode, an overly confident person will make an overly quick and inevitably wrong decision.
In management situations, Comey raised the humorous but very real issue of two people simultaneously dealing with their individual “imposter complexes.” As he put it, both the manager and the subordinate are afraid they’ll be unmasked as imposters. The subordinate may be nervous at being exposed for incompetency. The manager may be afraid to listen for fear of appearing not to know something the subordinate knows.
His answer is to be a better listener – not, as he put it, a “Washington listener” who simply waits for his turn to bulldoze the other person with talking points. No, a good leader listens and tries to demonstrate that he or she needs what the subordinate has to offer.
Be a better listener – not, as he put it, a “Washington listener” who simply waits for his turn to bulldoze the other person with talking points. No, a good leader listens and tries to demonstrate that he or she needs what the subordinate has to offer.
Needing Leadership in a Difficult Era
Mark Barrenechea posed an alarming question to Comey. What can we do, he asked, about the fact that we are now in an era when law enforcement can look at our DNA records, harvest our personal information from social media and so forth, without any specific legal justification? Comey replied, ironically, that we are in a “golden age of surveillance.” Americans have turned their information over to third parties, putting themselves at the risk for warrantless searches.
What will it take to make this situation right? The answer, according to Comey, refers back to his views on leadership. These are complicated issues. Quick answers will almost certainly be wrong. Effective leaders in business and government would be well served by focusing on external reference points. What are American values? What is the foundation of American democracy? Those are the parameters for making these policy decisions.
Quick answers will almost certainly be wrong. Effective leaders in business and government would be well served by focusing on external reference points. What are American values? What is the foundation of American democracy? Those are the parameters for making these policy decisions.
Factoring Leadership into Policy Decisions
One of the helpful takeaways from Comey’s keynote was the insight that every difficult policy decision requires leadership. This can be for good or bad. The worst policy ever devised was the product of someone’s leadership, leadership that turned out to have been extremely poor. The challenge is to approach policymaking with solid leadership that includes listening and a healthy balance between confidence and humility.
Mark Barrenechea concluded the session by discussing a recent moment when Opentext confronted a tricky leadership decision. After the revelations that Facebook had shared user data with a third party, Barrenechea concluded that it would be better to terminate its Facebook presence. “We based our client and partner relationships on trust. If Facebook disclosed their information to a third party without their permission, we would consider that a breach of trust.” He made the decision despite the fact that it will affect short term sales pipeline.