The Character of a Leader: Crucial to National Security

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“The man who can conceive a policy but cannot expound it might as well never have had the ideas, while the man who can do both these things but is unpatriotic is unable to speak out with the same loyalty; and if he has the loyalty too but cannot resist money, then for that one reason all the other qualities would be up for sale.” Thucydides Book II, 60:6-7

Buried in the text of Thucydides: The War of the Peloponnesians and the Athenians is a valuable civics lesson for Americans today. In Thucydides’ account, the legendary Athenian leader Pericles contended with the turbulent forces of fickle public opinion, personal ambitions, and tough policy choices in a time of war. In his speech to the Assembly of Athens, Pericles asserted that the quality of a person’s character, above all else, was the essential marker that determined fitness for public office. Pericles cautioned the citizens of Athens that accepting a leader whose personal character prioritized self-interest over the public good would inevitably place the state in peril in a time of crisis.

The critical lesson for Americans today is that in an age of instant global communications, interdependent economies, and world-ending military power, the personal character of senior elected officials is a national security issue. Aspirants to public office must possess the character and moral fiber to lead effectively in times of calm and crisis. Leaders with distorted ethics will lose the trust of the people, and their failure can ruin policy and cost lives. Under the intense pressure of public office their flaws intensify, and this places the leader and more importantly, the public interest, at risk. The first and last check on this hazard is the engaged and active citizen.

Character and Personal Ethics

The study of ethics is a broad field with a variety of interpretations, but there are some broadly accepted markers for ethical competence. One gauge of the quality of a person’s character as a leader is to consider how that individual acts when confronted by moral principles or ideals in competition. Often personal behaviors reveal the ethical framework that indicates how a candidate will approach ethical dilemmas as a public servant. Is a leader able to put the greater good ahead of personal motives, and remain truthful while fulfilling their duties? Does the aspiring leader follow a value system that conforms to the core values of the broader community he or she represents? These are fundamental qualities, but they are essential for the development of trust and credibility for elected leaders.

Even a basic survey of American history provides case studies that emphasize the link between individual character and personal ethics. The nation’s first president, George Washington carefully maintained a reputation for thoughtfulness, dignity, and integrity. These qualities provided him with the influence he needed to lead the country through a war and then into the formidable task of forming its first national government. Washington’s moral coherence, despite great stress, enabled his effective leadership of the new nation. Contrast the example of Washington with an infamous contemporary, Benedict Arnold. Arnold is widely known for his courage and competence as a soldier. However, he is notorious for his willingness to disgrace himself and betray the struggling country for personal gain. Under pressure, a leader with a distorted ethical standard will likely compromise their integrity, misdirect their loyalty, and subordinate the collective good to self-interest regardless of the damage it brings.

The Power of Trust and Credibility

Candidates for high public office devote considerable energy to earn and maintain the trust of their followers because in a democracy trust translates to power. The public official with the confidence of citizens can access what some scholars call “referent power” to inspire the public. Referent power is the ability to inspire and motivate followers through the attraction of personal behavior or example. It requires the ability to earn, and maintain, the trust and consent of followers.  This ability to inspire others extends beyond the ties of shared ideological views. This is the two o’clock in the morning, emergency announcement kind of trust that a leader calls upon when lives and treasure are in the balance. This is the sort of power that complements the simple “position power” of the office.

If we doubt the straightforward honesty of our public figures, then there is no foundation for credibility. Credibility is the currency of influence-the leverage that supports engagement with a broader audience than the ideological base allows. This quality enables leaders to attract a wider array of participants to achieve cooperative solutions to complex problems. Voters must work to discern what attributes of a particular candidate will likely shape that person’s decision-making processes under the intense pressures and expectations of public office. Will self-regard trump duty?

It is true that at the highest levels no one leads alone, and senior leadership is a collective effort with advisors, and deputies all wielding influence. However, senior leaders who exercise great authority and responsibility, like generals, CEOs, and the President must accept that their position amplifies the effects of their influence and credibility. One of the central features of a leader’s credibility is their fundamental truthfulness, and this attribute is a crucial marker for their ability to lead effectively in times of crisis. Here again, Americans can turn to their recent history for examples when deliberate deceit compromised national interests and later undermined a president’s ability to lead.

Former President Richard Nixon was a political leader of significant personal achievement and competence, who nonetheless allowed personal ambition, arrogance, and egotism to subvert the kind of personal integrity required by his office. There were indicators before his election in 1968 that his character was questionable. During the presidential campaign of 1968, Nixon engaged in a deliberate effort to undermine President Johnson’s efforts to end the war in Vietnam to gain a political advantage. Nixon’s deceit, treachery, and the cynical use of personal influence contributed to the extension of the war and the loss of thousands of American and Vietnamese lives.

This incident alone should have indicated that Nixon carried deep character flaws that should have disqualified him to hold the office of President.  However, no one in Nixon’s circle possessed sufficient courage to challenge him. Nixon’s efforts to help his campaign were successful in the short term, but the administration that began with lies and conspiracy ended six years later in scandal and disgrace. So despite a record of some dramatic policy successes, Nixon’s flawed character doomed his political career and more importantly, undermined public trust in the government in general and in the office of the president in particular.

There are persuasive arguments that holding the bar too high will deter capable leaders from risking criticism for merely being imperfect human beings. If absolute purity becomes the test, then the platform will be empty because no one can pass the test, indeed, “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” (Romans 3:23). After all what reasonable person would throw the whole of their lives open to extensive scrutiny and criticism? Even the cherished figures of American political history like Washington remained chained to the earth by their humanity.

Even with allowances for human imperfections, few can argue that a president’s character traits are immaterial or a secondary consideration in the contest for public office. There is substantial evidence that successful, and even visionary presidents, share many character traits in common. Chief among these is their ability to build trust with the public - even those with divergent policy preferences. The central truth behind Pericles’s assertion has not changed. Ultimately citizens will have to weigh the character of those who seek to represent their interests in government and select those with the best fit for positions of trust and authority.

The Citizen Gatekeeper

In 1938 President Franklin D. Roosevelt told the people of Ohio-“ let us never forget that government is ourselves and not an alien power over us. The ultimate rulers of our democracy are not a President and Senators and Congressmen and Government officials but the voters of this country.”

Most of us know what a failure of character looks like when we see it. Most voters can cite personal examples and refer to public accounts of failures- both great and small. In our courts, our workplaces, and in our civic life we can observe the immediate effect of the imbalance or absence of character, but we often fail to grasp the long-term harm that results. Leaders in positions of public trust bear tremendous responsibility to, “well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office.” When they fail in that responsibility they not only disgrace themselves, they fail their fellow citizens.  

Now, in 21st century America, we endow many of our elected leaders with authorities and power the ancient Greeks only ascribed to their gods. This fact makes the judgment of the citizen in our democracy (unwieldy as it is) more urgent. Pericles’s assertion that integrity and ethical fiber of leaders matter is supported by accounts from antiquity through the headlines of today. So as it was in ancient Greece, a national leader with weak character is likely to suffer personal compromises that can undermine good governance and national security. American voters face a difficult but essential responsibility to evaluate the character of those who seek positions of public trust. This responsibility is at the heart of the citizen’s obligation to the community, and the nation. November is coming, and character is still crucial.

William A. Adler is career Army officer, former Battalion Commander,  and a current faculty member at the US Naval War College's College of Leadership and Ethics. These views are my own and do not reflect the positions of the college or the DoD. 

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