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StrategyMay 30, 2012

What America’s Leaders Can Learn from America’s Warriors

Donovan Campbell

The moment I entered Marine basic officer training, I was told that I existed for two things only: 1) to accomplish my mission and 2) to take care of my men. I was told that I had been entrusted with a sacred mission: to defend our country and to defend those who could not defend themselves. I was told that to achieve this mission I had been entrusted with the most precious resource imaginable: the lives of young men and women. And I was told that my job was to serve those young men and women by laying down my life, literally and figuratively, for them and the cause for which we fought.

When combat came, I tried hard to do what I was told, and I found out that what I was told works. It is this servant-leadership model that inspires nineteen year-olds to charge a machine gun position, or to jump on a grenade, or to drag a wounded child out of withering machine gun fire. It is servant-leadership that keeps these teams able to keep doing the dangerous missions, day in and day out, without quitting once, for months and even years at a time. When the most certain outcome of any given course of action is wounds or death, the only thing that allows you to persevere is the bone-deep understanding that your leaders know the mission and that the mission is important; that your leaders care about you more than they do themselves; and that your leaders will be making the exact same sacrifices that they ask of you.

Servant-Leadership and Individual Character

Outside of the military, however, it seems the servant-leader model has been abandoned for all practical purposes. As a result, our country suffers from an acute leadership crisis, a crisis that has been brought into sharp relief by the economic downturn of the past four years. There are many reasons for our current mess, but none more important than the following: our leaders have ceased to focus on pursuing individual character with the same energy with which they pursue power, fame, or riches.

Ironically, character is a word that is often used, maybe even over-used, in today’s popular culture. Talking heads pontificate about it throughout the 24/7 news cycle. Business leaders routinely cite “character and competence” as necessary ingredients for success. Sports announcers talk about the “character” of outstanding athletes as something that contributes to their tremendous feats on the field. Politicians refer to the crucial importance of national and individual “character.” Teachers talk about instilling “character” in their students; parents talk about teaching it to their children.

But when pressed, very few can precisely define what they mean by the term. Are there individual virtues that make up the desirable-yet-nebulous end-state we call character? Is there a specific morality that must be followed? Or is it up to each individual to decide their own virtues, succeeding if they do right and avoiding inflicting harm? What is it, precisely, that we want to become when we talk about people of character? Are there specific traits that we think leaders MUST possess if they hope to build and maintain an effective servant-leader model?

Virtue: the Foundation of Character

The answer is “Yes.” There are certain core values that typify any good leader, and if we want to know what they are, and internalize them in our own lives, then we need look no farther than the men and women who fight and die on our behalf. Of all of our national institutions, the military may be the only one that still teaches that character comes above all else, that some virtues are absolutes, and that its members will hew to these absolutes or face punishment.  In this way, this institution goes far beyond simply creating a “culture” with four or five key pillars.  It actually tells its members the type of people they need to become, and it expects its leaders to faithfully execute this character throughout the entirety of their careers and under every imaginable circumstance. And while character can be defined in many ways, the military boils it down to the following: an honorable individual condition gained through the intentional pursuit of virtue and maintained over the course of a lifetime.

Unsurprisingly, our Armed Forces are one of the only national institutions with widespread approval—over seventy percent in recent surveys. Its members have been asked to make tremendous sacrifices, and its leaders have been expected to perform tremendous feats, from making life-and-death decisions under fire to governing entire cities. By and large, they have succeeded, and they have succeeded because their leaders share a common baseline on what constitutes right and wrong.

The various military branches express the virtues underpinning character in different ways, but in all of their forms they can be boiled down to the following six: 1) humility 2) excellence 3) kindness 4) discipline 5) courage and 6) wisdom. But before these things can be pursued or applied, a prospective leader must first identify an overarching mission, something that orders their lives and something that transcends their own personal well-being.

If Not Me, Who? If Not Now, When?

The world is in a dangerous place, and too many people have lost faith and hope because so many leaders have behaved so poorly. We wonder about the future: what will we see in our lifetimes, and what will be the legacy we leave to our children? Will it be better or worse than the one left to us?

I believe that it can and will be better and that it will take virtuous leaders who serve others will make it so.  We had a saying in the Marines that helped spur us to action before particularly dangerous missions:

If not me, who?

If not now, when?

It is our time now to make a difference—no one else will do it for us. Each of us can be a leader who makes an impact if we make ourselves the most virtuous leaders we can be. Over the course of the next seven weeks, we will examine each of the military’s core virtues, starting with the concept of mission. As we do so, we will explore how these virtues apply to the key areas of our lives—work, family, friends, communities. How can we lead our teams well at work? How can we become the best people we can be at home? How can we, and our organizations achieve peak performance, every day?

But before we begin exploring, it is worth reflecting and asking ourselves a simple question:

What kind of character do we want to build in our own lives, and are we pursuing that character like we pursue anything else we want to be good at—with intentionality, hard work, and perseverance?

*This blog is based on lessons learned in three combat tours with the United States Marines, lessons that Donovan found applicable in the business world, and life in general. His second Iraq tour is chronicled in the NYT best-seller, Joker One. This blog is a preview of his next book, The Leader’s Code,  scheduled to release on April 9, 2013. Donovan believes character is the basis for leadership, and we agree. To learn more about Donovan and his book, visit www.theleaderscode.com.