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John McCain – An American Hero

| September 11, 2018

by Jim Bruce

Some two weeks ago, Senator John McCain died. While some saw him as a maverick, someone with a strong independent streak, he was also determined to do what he believed right, even at a high personal cost. He is an American hero – for his five and a half years as a prisoner in a Vietnamese war prison, for his many years of service in Congress, and for the leadership principles he embodied. And, for me his death was particularly note-worthy: I was born in 1936 almost to the day two months before, Senator McCain, a poignant reminder that we each have the opportunity to live each moment of our lives in ways that serve those around us.
The words that have been spoken of the Senator, by those in both high and low positions, have told us much about his character and his life. Many of the words that were used talked about leadership principles that are familiar to us.  Among them are courage, integrity, character, service, optimism, dignity, sacrifice, honor, duty, faith, and respect for others. In the following paragraphs, I will focus on four of these:
Courage – The Cambridge Dictionary defines courage as “the ability to control fear and to be willing to deal with something that is dangerous, difficult, or unpleasant.” Senator McCain was courageous. You need to look no further than his years in a Vietnam prison on one hand and his service in the Senate where he willingly, when needed, spoke truth to power. In a 2004 essay,1 he spoke at length about courage. There he tells us that “courage is the enforcing virtue, the one that makes possible all the other virtues common to exceptional leaders: honesty, integrity, confidence, compassion, and humility.  In short, leaders who lack courage aren’t leaders.” 
He also wrote: “Courage is that rare moment of unity between conscience, fear, and action, when something deep within us strikes that flint of love, of honor, of duty, to make the spark that fires our resolve. Courage is the highest quality of life attainable by human beings. It’s the moment – however brief or singular – when we are our complete, best self, when we know with an almost metaphysical certainty that we are right. Courage is not the absence of fear but the capacity to act despite our fears. … If you do the thing you think you cannot do, you’ll feel your resistance, your hope, your dignity, and your courage grow stronger.”
Integrity – Turning again to the Cambridge Dictionary, integrity is “the quality of being honest and having strong moral principles that you refuse to change.” In McCain’s story, we saw this first in his refusal, while a prisoner in Vietnam, to be released early because he was the son of the Navy Admiral commanding the war. He also refused early release to keep his honor, to avoid an enemy propaganda coup, and to risk demoralizing his fellow prisoners. This is consistent with his life principle that you never sacrificed your integrity for personal gain.
Another related principle here is to have the courage to own “it” when you fail and not to throw people under the bus for your decisions. Later in life this became do what you believe is right even if it costs you, and defend the facts and truth even when it requires standing up to people of influence and those close to you.
Relationships – Senator McCain seemed to have meaningful relationships with a very large number of people. Just think of the people who were invited by name to the three services held to memorialize his life. He actively tried to bring people together. Kim Secakuku, a member of Arizona’s Hope Tribe said this simply: He “was someone who showed respect for people regardless of their background, their wealth or lack thereof, what language they grew up speaking.”
Throughout his time as a senator, he mentored new senators, both men and women, often taking them on international fact-finding trips associated with the Senate Committee on Armed Services where they got to know each other and could see their responsibilities more broadly. He strongly believed that you should not let differences in your position or belief come in the way of your relationship with an individual. Senator McClain was willing to work with anyone who shared his moral code. Former Vice president Biden noted, however that “He’d part company with you if you lacked the basic values of decency, respect, knowing that this project is bigger than yourself.”
Faith3 – Although faith is not usually listed as a leadership trait, it was a keystone in the senator’s life and work. Senator McCain grew up attending an Episcopalian church and school. In later life, he was an active participant with his family at the North Phoenix Baptist Church. Prayer and church had become an ingrained part of his life in high school. As a prisoner of war, he was the “room chaplain.” There he urged his prisoners not to pray for their release or their personal success, but rather to pray that they might each do the right thing, so that each individual would not look back in regret or embarrassment or even shame that he had betrayed his principles and his faith.
Marilyn Haigh,2 in her essay, Three Tough Lessons Any Leader Can Learn from John McCain, provides another set of take-aways for us from the Senator’s life:

  1. Find common ground by working together. Understanding people’s differences and refusing to quit is key to navigating challenges. Tribalism and polarization will threaten an individual’s ability to lead. As a rule, we have much more in common than in disagreement.
  2. Look for the bigger picture. Too often the achievements of our opponents go unnoticed. So, stop and recognize them. It is possible to acknowledge the accomplishments of others while not losing sight of your goals. This will help you find ways to build bridges and to work better with others.
  3. Acknowledge your mistakes. Acknowledging mistakes can help leaders build trust. This step ensures a mistake is not seen as a failure, but as a relatable way to grow and change.

Clearly, much more could be said about this great man whose positive impact on this country will be sorely missed. Speaker of the House of Representatives Paul Ryan summed it up this way when he spoke in the Capitol Rotunda: John McCain was one of the bravest souls our country ever produced. He deserves to be remembered as he wished. A patriot who served his country well. A man of conviction. A man of state. Our identities and sense of worth were not circumscribed but enlarged by serving good causes bigger than ourselves. “However you choose to do your part, I hope you do it in the way he did: with energy and urgency; playing for keeps, never back on your heels; never letting principle yield to expedience; resisting the false allure of the fleeting, and battening down the hatches when things get rough; and always, always having a good story to tell.”
So, as you go about this week, think about the man John McCain. And, as you do, ask what from his life might you appropriate for the way you go about, day by day, carrying out your responsibilities. Marilyn Haigh’s “tough lessons” might be a good starting point as would be one or more of the leadership principles I mentioned.
Make it a great week.  .  .  .  jim
Jim Bruce is a Senior Fellow and Executive Coach at MOR Associates.  He previously was Professor of Electrical Engineering, and Vice President for Information Systems and CIO at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA.

  1. John McCain, John McCain on Courage and American Culture, FastCompany, August 2018.  (Originally published in September 2004 in FastCompany.)
  2. Marilyn Haigh, Three Tough Lessons Any Leader Can Learn From John McCain, CNBC MakeIt, august, 2018.
  3. Maeve Reston, How McCain’s Faith Sustained Him And Allowed Him To Forgive Himself, CNNPolitics, August 2018.