Kindness And Toughness, Confidence And Humility: James Comey talks ethical leadership at UConn


Former FBI Director James Comey spoke on ethical leadership, his FBI career and the current state of American politics at the University of Connecticut’s Jorgensen Auditorium last night. (Charlotte Lao/The Daily Campus)

Former FBI Director James Comey spoke on ethical leadership, his FBI career and the current state of American politics at the University of Connecticut’s Jorgensen Auditorium last night.

Comey said after President Trump fired him in May 2017, he felt a responsibility to speak on what it means to be an ethical leader, as he worries that the constant barrage of news surrounding immoral leadership in the political, entertainment and sports worlds discourages young people from striving to lead ethically.

“If that happens, we’re lost,” Comey said. “Maybe the good that I can contribute is, maybe I can use my voice to paint a picture of what it can look like- through the mistakes that I’ve made, the things that I’ve learned, great people I’ve been led by and terrible people, and paint a picture that way. And so that’s what I’m trying to accomplish by writing and speaking.”

An ethical leader has the ability to connect people to meaning and purpose in their work, Comey said.

“(A leader has an ability) to bring into the workplace values that people treasure, that make them find meaning in the work, to help a group of people become more as a member of a group than they ever could have been separately, and also help individuals grow and grow and grow. That’s what it means to be a leader,” Comey said.

Comey said there are two pairs of characteristics that make a good leader: kindness and toughness and confidence and humility. The best bosses criticize their employees in a kind way and are confident enough to trust them and put them in charge, Comey said.

“The best bosses would rather be over there watching one of their own folks doing (a job), and surely if their person is killing it,” Comey said. “Insecure people cannot do it, because they’re threatened. Just the act of listening is a confession of weakness.”

President Trump became a focus of the night’s talk, as Comey began it by telling the crowd he found out Trump had fired him after seeing the news on television screens while giving a speech to FBI janitorial and communications staff.

“(I was) in a big conference area, with desks and chairs in it, a training room. I noticed as I started talking that on the back wall was three televisions. You see where this is going, I think,” Comey said, to laughter from the crowd.

“As soon as I finished (a) story, I saw on the television screens, in huge words, ‘Comey resigns.’ So I knew that wasn’t true. I thought it was a prank, so I turned to the leadership of my staff and said, ‘That took a lot of work!,’ Comey said. “I just kept talking, I wasn’t going to let them scare me. Fifteen to 30 seconds later, I saw the screen change to ‘Comey fired.’”

Comey said he was surprised that Trump fired him but admitted his relationship with the president was “frosty.”

“The guy did not like me, and I was okay with that,” Comey said. “Our relationship, since before I became president, was a series of efforts by him to pull me close and me to push away. He would try to hug me, I would push away.”

Comey compared Trump to a forest fire, saying that though forest fires bring pain and damage, in their wake things grow that could not have grown without the fire.

“I already see the growth throughout this country. I see it in young people leaning forward like never before. I see it in women leaning forward and running for public office like never before. I see it in military veterans in both parties, people of integrity, choosing to participate rather than withdraw,” Comey said. “So my initial fear, I actually don’t see it coming true. We are going to be okay.”

First-semester environmental studies major Shannon Laughlin and first-semester political science and psychology double major Joshua Resnick said they attended the talk because they wanted to inform themselves about the United States government and its key players.

“I thought he did very well to break down what it actually takes to be a leader, and what that means, and how sometimes there are preconceived notions about (leadership) that might not actually be what a leader would do,” Resnick said.

“I went in with little knowledge of what he was going to talk about, I knew a little bit about him but I didn’t know what the main topic of the conversation was going to be,” Laughlin said. “But I thought he said a lot of inspiring things about leadership and I liked that he talked specifically about our generation. It gave me a lot of hope.”

Gabriella DeBenedictis is a staff writer for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at

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