In a law school lecture, Comey mixes personal stories with a call to service and a lesson in leadership

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Former FBI Director James B. Comey, 1985, said in a crowded University of Chicago Law School auditorium on Tuesday that he believed the United States was currently “under pressure tested” but, ultimately, the country continues to evolve on an upward, albeit jagged, slope.

“I actually think our current president is shedding light on things we took for granted,” Comey said at the 2019 Ulysses and Marguerite Schwartz Memorial Lecture, which drew hundreds of students, faculty and others. members of the University of Chicago community. “I think he’s accomplishing – unwittingly – a shrinking of the presidency, which in my opinion is sane and closer to the founders’ conception, and the revitalization of Congress and the courts that did not happen.” produced for two decades. … I don’t want to say it’s a good thing that Donald Trump is our president, but I see good things happening because of what he does.

Comey’s speech was both a lesson in ethical leadership – a role he believes lawyers, and especially law school graduates, are uniquely suited to fill – a call to service and a series ideas about his time as director of the FBI. He didn’t hesitate to talk about his meetings with Trump or his abrupt dismissal in May 2017. (“I like that Dean [Thomas] Miles said, ‘When he left government …’ ”Comey told the audience after Miles introduced him. “I was fired.” The comment elicited the first of many laughs.) Instead, Comey – who spoke without notes – used his personal stories to underscore his message about leadership, a role he says is defined by four qualities: kindness associated with tenacity and confidence associated with humility.

“The best bosses and teachers I’ve ever had wouldn’t want to be here, they want to see [their students and employees] here, ”Comey said. “Insecure people can’t do this. An important way to measure leaders is to look at who they started – who worked under them and then did great things.

Comey (right) listens to Professor John Rappaport during the criminal procedure class they co-taught during Comey's two-day visit to law school.
Comey (right) listens to Professor John Rappaport during the criminal procedure class they co-taught during Comey’s two-day visit to law school.

Almost everyone, he said, suffers from impostor syndrome, which he described as “the fear that if you knew me as I know myself, you would think less of me.” But strong leaders recognize their position on top of a hill, and know that it is their responsibility to be the one to be humble and to listen. The right kind of listening, he added, “is to admit that” I don’t know, and you might know something that I don’t know. interrupting and displaying open body language, he added.

“Think about the problem created by the hill: I am the leader at the top of the hill and I am afraid of being exposed. People get up when I walk into a room. If I speak up and admit that I don’t know something… I’m exposed, ”Comey said. But as a leader, he added, “it’s my job to flatten the hill.”

Comey chats with students after the Schwartz lecture.
Comey chats with students after the Schwartz lecture.

Comey said he met both the best listener – and the worst – in his final months as director of the FBI. “They were both presidents of the United States,” he said.

President Obama, he said, seemed to make a point when they met to “flatten the hill” by sitting in the plush chairs in the Oval Office rather than behind the desk.

“He often didn’t wear his jacket, and he made me sit in the first position on the couch, opened his posture, and he was quiet,” Comey said. “He knew that if he cut me off, I could stop talking.

Trump, on the other hand, was almost always sitting behind the desk and “he almost never stopped talking,” Comey said. “So if you needed to say something to him, especially something about him… you had to shout it up the hill, over the desk and in a storm of words.” “

Comey also told students that ethical leadership is not about the answers, but how you get to the answer. A good leader, he said, looks beyond short-term concerns to determine what factors should really guide a decision. They also surround themselves with smart people and think about how the decision will be viewed in the future.

Comey speaks to law school students during criminal proceedings.
Comey speaks to law school students during criminal proceedings.

Law school students are already practicing these values ​​because they are embedded in culture, he told the audience.

“You to have that, ”he told the students. “You haven’t just practiced what it takes to be an ethical leader. You have internalized the [common values] that hold us together. So I hope for all of you that you will take this incredible education that you receive here and realize the value of it… and use it to participate in the life of institutions of all kinds and in the life of this… country .

During his two-day visit, Comey also met with students and professors and taught with Professor John Rappaport in the Rappaport Criminal Procedure Course.

Comey has previously visited law school, delivered remarks at the 2015 graduation and hoodie ceremony at the Rockefeller Chapel, and returned the following October to discuss race and policing.


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