When you vote, choose trustworthy leaders who command respect

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For some, the joy of a new year ahead may be dampened by the approach of the presidential and congressional election season. It’s the quadrennial spectacle when the divisiveness and base pandering of the warring political parties and their campaigns shift from its background roar into a riot of partisan absurdity.  

Our 2020 “to do” lists must include preparing for the daily deluge of accusations, insults, innuendo and demonization for dollars, votes and power, when the sensible center is drowned out by the ravings of the battling extremes.

We must ready ourselves for the daily cacophony of pundits, critics, candidates and surrogates out-shouting one another, as the Fourth Estate obsesses over the latest poll results and fundraising tallies and rushes to report the latest gossip or gaffe from the campaign trail.  

Soon, negative messaging paid for by special-interest dark money will masquerade as legitimate, independent political speech, while biased cable and internet media outlets continue propagandizing under the guise of journalism.

Brace yourself for more facile debates when the most we can learn about a candidate’s merit is the ability to remember and deliver a poll-tested sound bite and how well a media celebrity can preen for a national audience.   

All the while, as we continue navigating our favorite internet sites, most of us will scarcely perceive we are the mark for buzzy, micro-targeted political messaging aimed at manipulating our demographic profile, personal passions and confirmation bias into a winning vote count, perhaps in a gerrymandered district of a perennial swing state that will determine how the rest of the country is governed. And, behind the scenes, foreign powers once again will deploy digital weaponry, fomenting hatred and division to turn the ultimate exercise of our democracy into a tool for slowly destroying it from within. 

The brokenness of the nation’s election system and predations of the election industry, however, do not diminish the duty possessed by “We, the people” to elect a president to serve not only as the nation’s chief executive but as commander in chief of the U.S. military and de facto leader of the free world, and select lawmakers who will do the nation’s business proud.  

The partisan circus leaves most Americans — a plurality unaligned with either party — hungry for simplicity and clarity, as we seek to accomplish the profound ends intended by the presidential and congressional elections: finding and installing the qualified leadership that the country requires to succeed. 

Here’s a thought on a lens above partisan orthodoxy and special-interest check boxes we might consider for doing exactly that. 

No national institution is more trusted and respected by Americans for its comprehension and practice of high-quality leadership than the U.S. military. In fulfilling the duty to select the nation’s leaders, it seems fitting for the electorate to consider setting its expectations and measuring candidates according to the standards and qualifications of leadership that the military has honed over 244 years of service to the country.

Gen. Dan Christman, former superintendent of West Point and a renowned expert on military and civilian leadership, boils it down to this: “Leadership,” he says, “is foremost about character, and character is value-based.”

The U.S. Army’s leadership model, he explains, “is based on the building of trust earned by leaders who reflect the core values of integrity and respect.” These values define character for all leaders, uniformed or not. 

There you have it — the tripart essence of leadership: trustworthiness, integrity, respect.  

For deeper context about trustworthiness, we can turn to an essay written for the Military Review by a team of scholarly Army colonels: 

“Fundamentally, we expect a leader to be trustworthy. Trust is gained and sustained through the consistent demonstration of character, competence and commitment. In other words, leaders earn trust when they do their duty well, do it in the right way, do it for the right reasons, and are persevering. Accordingly, a professional member of the armed services must seek to discover the truth, decide what is right, and demonstrate the character, competence and commitment to act accordingly (a ‘right’ decision must be ethical, efficient and effective).”

On integrity, the Air Force code of ethics places it first among its core values: 

“Integrity is the single most important part of character. … Integrity is not a suit that can be taken off at night or on the weekend or worn only when it is important to look good. Integrity is the adherence to a strong moral code and consistency in one’s actions and values. A person of integrity acts with conviction, demonstrating appropriate self-control without acting rashly.”

The central component of integrity, the code states, is honesty as a foundation of trust, instructing leaders to be guided by “a deeply held sense of honor, not one of personal comfort or uncontrolled selfish appetites.” 

Respect is imbedded in the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps values of “honor, courage and commitment,” which regard it as a synergistic quality based on earning respect by showing respect and being respectable. The code demands that servicemembers “Foster respect up and down the chain of command by caring for the personal and spiritual well-being of others. Show respect toward all people without regard to race, religion or gender. Always strive for positive change and personal improvement. Exhibit the highest degree of moral character, professional excellence, quality, and competence in all that one does.”

The Coast Guard’s leadership model is based on core competencies founded on the value system of “honor, respect and devotion to duty.” It defines integrity as the cornerstone of honor, while vesting each individual swearing the oath of service — one mirroring those sworn by presidents and members of Congress — with the duty to “treat each other and those we serve with fairness, dignity, respect and compassion.” Leaders are expected to be paragons of the values that the services encode.

How much better would our country be if our election system were better at attracting and elevating visionary, competent leaders who meet the conception of excellent leadership by those they would order into harm’s way? 

How much better, if candidates and the elected assessed themselves by the light of these standards and focused on exhibiting them in all that they do, say, and stand for on the campaign trail and in office?

How much better, if we worked harder at making the conduct of political campaigns and politics a greater source of pride to the nation’s service personnel standing posts abroad and defending the system with their lives?

How much better, indeed, if before pulling the voting lever, we as voters asked ourselves which aspiring commander in chief and would-be legislator has earned the privilege of leadership by best demonstrating the character of a true leader — trustworthiness rooted in the values of integrity and respect? 

John Raidt is a former legislative director to Sen. John McCain and staff director of the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, and serves as a non-resident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council.

Tags 2020 presidential election campaigns Commander-in-chief Integrity John McCain Leadership

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