Do We Have Leadership Problems?

Over the holidays, I read James Comey’s book, A Higher Loyalty Truth, Lies And Leadership.  Whether or not you like Comey and his decisions as FBI director, he describes in his book some great leadership characteristics that are also very similar to those presidential historian Doris Kearns-Goodwin recently wrote about and talked about at an Aspen Institute event on former presidents.

The leadership characteristics they identify are absolutely useful for workplace leaders, whether it be for a manager or union leader.  In an annual workplace Millennial survey from Deloitte, a large global professional services provider, it tells why strong leadership is needed more than ever.

Deloitte surveys Millennials to get insight into their thoughts about their workplace, leadership, work skills and social issues and the most recent, which is from this last year,  showed a significant decline from previous years in how Millennials and Generation Z view both the workplace and leaders within the workplace.   Instead of seeing new ideas, or ways to help society or the environment or peoples’ lives, including their own; these workers see more unethical behavior and a greater emphasis on workplace profits.  While workers believe profits are important the survey reflects their discouragement on other issues being ignored. This has led many to consider looking for another job.  Even if the survey doesn’t represent every workplace, it does say why strong leadership needs to be maintained in organizations.

In his book, James Comey talked about a couple of his first bosses.  Both made a big impression on him.  He described a job he had at a grocery store when he was a teenager.  Other kids his age also worked there and they had a great time because of the store manager.  He took an interest in all of them and that encouraged all of them to want to work hard and please him. He let them joke around and have a good time but he also didn’t hesitate to let them know when they made mistakes. Another boss Comey wrote about was when he had his first job as a lawyer.  This supervisor seemed to be similar to the grocery store manager in that he, too, had specific ways of wanting things done but he also appeared to have some empathy for those who worked for him.  His humility, too, helped him to be interested in the people he encountered, including employees, and he made sure to save time for family life.  In later years, when Comey worked for the federal government he saw another important leadership skill and that was listening.  He described some meetings he had with President Bush and President Obama.  Both would move away from behind the desk and sit near Comey as they talked.  He liked the informality they created by moving away from the desk.  It appeared to bring them to a lower level but also seemed to provide them with an ability to show interest in the importance of what was being told to them and to actually listen to what was being said.  He also described another meeting  with Obama where others were present.  He said Obama encouraged everyone to speak or provide their opinions.  Obama acted as sort of a facilitator by asking questions and encouraging others to talk as he listened to their opinions. It’s these type of behaviors that helped to shape Comey.  They also display the type of behaviors leaders need to have such as listening; humility; an interest in others; especially employees,  and an  opportunity to do things away from the workplace to help rejuvenate abilities. It wasn’t that they demanded less from their  employees because they didn’t.  They did it in a way that made employees understand why it was necessary, and more importantly, because they wanted to do more for a boss that took in interest in them.

What seems amazing is Doris-Kearns Goodwin wrote her book about different people but the characteristics were very similar to those Comey described about leaders in his book. In Kearns-Goodwin’s book, Leadership In Turbulent Times, she writes about four presidents from several years ago.  She described how Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson brought their leadership abilities to their role of president.  As in Comey’s book, the leaders in Doris Kearns-Goodwin knew how to relate to people. Lincoln was a great writer that inspired people.  Theodore Roosevelt had a strong ability to relate to those who were not as well off as he.  Franklin Roosevelt gave people hope and encouragement through the Great Depression and Lyndon Johnson was able to convince others of the need for certain pieces of legislation such as Medicare, Civil Rights and other Great Society contributions.  They all possessed a level of humility because of situations that greatly impacted their ability to achieve but it also transformed them enough to come back stronger. For Franklin Roosevelt it was having to overcome being a paraplegic after contracting polio.  For Theodore Roosevelt it was losing both his wife and mother on the same day. This helped them to identify with the struggles of ordinary people but also encouraged them to leave significant legacies.  All four of them also knew the importance of learning.  Johnson was able to remember lone excerpts at age four.  Lincoln had a tenacity for books so he would be able to read and learn despite his father’s objections.  Because of his love of books and learning, he was able to help others do the same.  As presidents, they weren’t the sole decision makers.  They all knew it was more important to rely on the opinions and ideas of others instead of relying just on themselves.

A few blogs ago, we also described a person who had great skill as a leader.  That person was Arthur T. Demoulas, CEO of Demoulas Market Basket grocery chain.  The chain was a family business and Arthur’s cousin tried to oust him as CEO.  When the employees found out about it, they staged a walk-out in support of him.  They told their stories about Artie T. which is what they called him.  He would come into stores, they said, and have a conversation with them.  He remembered their names and remembered things about their families.  Artie T., just like the store manager in Comey’s book, took a strong interest in the people that worked in his grocery stores.

If more workplace leaders followed in the footsteps of previous leaders by taking an interest in people, including their employees, encouraging them to offer new ideas, and helping communities in which they reside,  they might see an even greater profit increase.   More than likely, the Millennial and Generation Z survey would also have more positive results again.

Maybe it’s a sign of the times or maybe it’s just the political climate we live in but the leadership problems like those in the survey don’t need to exist.  All we need to do is go back and learn from others.  That’s what other great leaders have done!

About CALMC Blog

Columbus Area Labor-Management Committee is a not-for-profit organization dedicated to involving employers and employees to preserve jobs, resolve workplace issues, and promote labor-management cooperation. Visit our website at
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