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Dr. James Comer: On Life and Leadership

October 13, 2023

In the latest edition of the Yale Child Study Center (YCSC) “On Leadership” blog post and newsletter column, Daryn David, PhD shares excerpts from an interview with James Comer, MD, MPH, focused on how his early life experiences laid the groundwork for his leadership practices. The transcription from the recorded interview has been lightly edited, including with the occasional insertion of square brackets to indicate a turn from verbatim transcription to summarization.

Dr. Comer serves as the Maurice Falk Professor of Child Psychiatry at the Yale Child Study Center. The interview was conducted live on September 26, 2023 – the day after his 89th birthday. This is part one of a two-part series. The second portion will be posted in December.

Daryn David (DD): Perhaps this is a good question for the day after your 89th birthday: Why did you get into the line of work that you've committed your career to doing in the first place?

James Comer (JC): I started out almost from the beginning being confused about issues of race…what I was hearing about African Americans was the opposite of what I was experiencing in my own family and that of many other African American families and communities.

That confusion led me to raise questions with my parents, and they helped me think about the fact that I was as good as anybody and that the negative beliefs about African Americans was somebody else's shortcoming…nothing wrong with me. My job was to prepare myself, and my time would come.

I didn't fully understand what that meant, but I knew it meant I had to be functioning well, achieving well, and I'd have opportunities. That's as much as I understood. That message went deep. That's what life's about. And that's what you have to do.

I wanted to be a doctor from the very beginning. I was preparing myself to become a doctor. Eventually…when I was doing my internship, I began to run into people who had been truly victimized by race and race issues. Eventually, I began to ask the question, "Well, what could I do about this in a real kind of way?"

That led to public health, psychiatry, child psychiatry, and trying to provide leadership as a Black psychiatrist – but most of all, it led to a focus on education and how education could be used to address racial problems. My father's argument or position was that things would change and get better because America wanted to be a democracy and wanted to be…good Christians. That combination of things would lead to a change in conditions.

I didn't give his explanation and prediction much attention until I realized that some, and especially poor Black kids, were being victimized in a way that was bad for them, bad for African Americans, bad for the country, bad for the world. The question for me was, what can I do about the situation? It was during my military service time after my medical school training that I became aware of how very bad things were for so many poor people. This awareness led me into trying to get the skills needed to try to address the problems; my Child Study Center training was a part of this effort.

DD: In light of that background or that experience, what would you say about why leadership matters?

JC: Because [as] the leader, you're the carrier of a message, but it is more than message. It's the application of principles...with the leader as the facilitator. You could have an organization, and a group could have good ideas, but unless you have someone who can help you understand the problem, understand what can be done, focus on and work together to manage the task; you’re less likely to be successful. That’s why the leader, as an effort model, is so important.

DD: In your work as a leader, how have you thought about the others? By that, I mean, how have you factored in developing the people working for you?

JC: My work has been in schools. Even as a public health psychiatrist I was from a social structure outside of education. I had no official position or authority within the schools. From the beginning, I've had to understand and respect the system I was working in; and how the way you lead depends on where you are, what the structures are, what the possibilities are. I was not in control.

I had to generate unofficial authority that grows out of the way you help or can be helpful or useful and the kind of trust and respect that people build for you. In the end – not even in the end, almost in the beginning – that's what I had to lean on.

DD: How would you gain their trust?

JC: It was finding out what the system and the individuals wanted and needed – and needed to know to be able to do it. I used the principles and knowledge that I carried as a low-income kid who had a positive mainstream developmental experience. I learned a lot from that. I figured out why our family – [and] other families like our family – were successful in the mainstream and why many kids who were just as bright – just as able – were not.

DD: What was it? Why was your family successful?

JC: Because they had a set of principles, life principles that they lived by and that they transmitted to us. They didn't have money. They had principles and they had beliefs and attitudes committed to being good people, committed to being successful people. That's what allowed them to be effective, allowed them to get respect from people who sometimes were opposite in ways. I was told that my dad used to go down the street on our way to church with his four kids and people said to be thugs would salute him because he was just a good human being.

Both of my parents were just remarkable people. I had a sister who was 17 years older who was a very accomplished, successful person. I had three parents, really. They all, in different ways, provided a model and models of being a good person or trying to be a good person and successful person.

DD: How did that translate tangibly into your leadership style?

JC: Like my parents, I never believed in control or trying to control people or make them do things. I tried to create conditions that helped people want to perform well. Almost from the beginning…I believed in creating this kind of climate and culture around me and within people I was working with, because that's the way my family functioned…my family around that dinner table at 5:00 in the evening every day, except Sundays after church.

It was kind of a meeting of the council because we all at various times talked about problems – we talked about successes, things we wanted, how to do it, who will pick up whom – all the logistics and everything we did was worked out around [that] table. The planning, the organizing, the managing, expressions of discontent, expressions of joy…everything was there. It was like a council meeting every day. We worked similarly in schools.

When I won the Heinz Award for our work in schools they brought people together who were on the first effective steering committee and made a videotape. They were all excited and they were all talking about what they did and how good and how wonderful everything was. The videographer said, "Well, but what did Dr. Comer do?" They stopped and they looked, [saying] “I don't remember.”

Now, that was great, as far as I was concerned, because after we laid out and discussed what we were trying to accomplish…they took it and they ran with it and they don't even remember my input. They did it. That's the way I like to work.

In everything, organizations, you can take that same approach…think about the way government has to work, the way organizations like hospitals [work]…you've got to have a framework that creates the culture, the climate and mechanisms for carrying out your task. You have to have some ways of assessing needs, devising strategies for addressing them, and you have to have training or preparation of people and program so that all the participants understand and want to buy into the effort.

DD: In light of the importance of frameworks, what would you say the biggest challenge you faced as a leader was?

JC: That good people had not been prepared to work in this way. The training of educators does not think about what the educator needs to know about supportive environments, child development or the preparation of the students to want to buy in and succeed. It is about the content and delivery of the curriculum.

The assumption is that if the student is not prepared, something is or was wrong with him – he's not smart enough, not responsible enough, not committed enough. Something's wrong with the child if he's not ready to learn. Usually the problem, what's wrong, is that they haven't had a developmental experience that prepares and motivates them to perform well, often even when they would like to do so.

Many kids haven't had a developmental experience that brought them to a level that they could get on what I call the opportunity structure. If you can't take the step on, if you can't connect, then you're in trouble and that trouble usually gets worse. If somewhere along the line you don't run into people who can help you, that trouble leads to more trouble and sometimes deep trouble. That's what happens. That's the cradle to the prison pipeline.

I grew up in a family that was protective and supportive of development, but in a neighborhood and area in which this was not always the condition. There were some tough people and tough situations there. But many of the people involved in them would have preferred to be responsible well-functioning people. They had had bad experiences that led them on downhill life courses. Every step they made…made things worse.

There were often people who themselves were getting into trouble, weren't functioning well, who didn't want the same for me, who wanted me to be successful. So in my family and in the social networks around me there were people and things that pushed me toward being an achieving and responsible person.

Look for part two of this interview – bringing these topics into the context of current times – in the December column, following next month’s reflection on the October 30th launch of the new “On Leadership” Grand Rounds lecture series at the YCSC.

The On Leadership blog was launched to address the importance of connection, collaboration, and embodying a service leadership mindset in professional and personal contexts. YCSC Assistant Professor Daryn H. David, PhD directs the column and serves as associate director for leadership development in the Yale School of Medicine (YSM) Offices of Academic and Professional Development and Diversity, Equity, & Inclusion.

Submitted by Crista Marchesseault on October 12, 2023