Guest post by Ian MacRae

Any biography about leadership can ultimately be limited or enhanced by the fact that the particular set of traits, life experience and circumstance that takes one person to leadership will never be identical to another.

James Comey’s book A Higher Loyalty is far from immune from this, but in setting up a case for ethical leadership, its’ self awareness and self-criticism reinforce the core message of the importance of ethics and honest in effective leadership. Mainly through narrative, the book aligns closely with much of the psychological research on what makes a leader effective.

A Higher Loyalty sets out a discussion ethical leadership by posing a clear contrast to the unethical and toxic leadership in organised crime. One of the interesting points brought out is how in toxic and unethical leaders typically follow some of the rules that preserve their positions, and ignore the rules they can get away with breaking.

And, importantly, the book defines exactly what is meant by “leadership” right up front. While some leadership books and biographies fall down immediately by being vague about what leadership means, this book specifically sets out a type of leadership from the outset: Ethical leadership.

While many conclusions can be drawn from the experiences in this book, there are five important components that can be used to understand leadership success. This is not an exhaustive list, but describes five components which would be confirmed by the psychological research into leadership.

Five Components Ethical Leadership

1) Early experiences of leadership

Most leaders have early stories of experiencing particularly good (or bad) leadership. These are often formative experiences which they carry with them for the rest of their lives and careers. Early career experiences, early role models at home or in education can all shape a person’s view of what makes a good leader. Often the experience of working for a very good leader is a role model future leaders carry with them for the rest of their life. Equally true, good leaders often have early experiences with leaders or peers that teach them about how not to treat others.

This is closely linked with the fifth point (leadership shape culture by example) because ethical, effective leaders tend to reinforce their styles and model them for the next generations of leaders, while toxic leadership styles can reinforce their own

2) Being open to criticism (especially self-criticism)

An important component of success in any domain is about learning from experience, and learning from mistakes. How people cope with adversity and how they learn from their mistakes is an even better predictor of success in the long term than experience alone.

3) Long-term thinking, led by values

Ultimately, leadership is about long-term planning for strategic objectives. Short-term opportunism or firefighting can create more problems than it solves if it is not done with strategic objectives in mind.

To be constructive and ethical, strategic objectives must be guided by proactive and moral values, as well as being long-term. Self-interest can come with any timeframe but strategic leadership must elevate the ethical purpose of the organisation above the interest of its’ members. This type of leadership means prioritising the overall values of the organisation, guided and embodied by the leader.

4) Commitment to truth and honesty

The importance of honesty in leadership is clearly connected to all the other points. Leaders must be honest to themselves as well as others. The objectives for the organisation and the leadership strategy should be clearly and honestly communicated across the organisation.

Lies, even when they are couched as lies to serve a greater purpose, ultimately can turn individuals, careers and organisation toxic. The importance of truth in ethical leadership is a core message in A Higher Loyalty which is contrasted with the toxic and often lethal environment of deception in organised crime groups.

5) Leaders shape the culture by example

The values of any organisation come from the top and are ultimately informed by the actions of senior leadership. Good, ethical leaders promote and model ethical behaviour from the top, whereas toxic leadership is corrosive. When a leader does not live up to the organisational values or the company’s mission, others are quick to notice this. Leaders must be constructive role models that live the values they espouse. If the words are hollow, and don’t reflect the real behaviour of leadership, that hypocrisy can be as toxic and corrosive as blatantly destructive leadership.


A Higher Loyalty contrasts ethical leadership with the toxic leadership that is typical in organised crime. Many of the characteristics posited as components of ethical leadership are consistent with the research on the bright side of leadership. Interestingly, the examples from crime families and observations about toxic, destructive groups is also extremely consistent with the more recent and growing area of research into the dark side of leadership. Bullies, cults, gangs and crime families also show consistent patterns of behaviour which are illustrated in this book.

The book is a particular case study of ethical leadership in American law enforcement, and so the book does occasionally stray into theatrical Americana.  In doing this however, the book also illustrates (whether intentionally or not) how any leader can be shaped by their environment and circumstance. Leadership occurs within a particular culture, organisation and climate, not apart from it.

About the author: Ian MacRae has written four books. His most recent book High Potential: How to spot manage and develop talented people at work (Bloomsbury 2018) provides a detailed framework for identifying high potential leaders at work.

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