What We Can Learn from John Mccain's Leadership and Patriotism

What We Can Learn from John McCain’s Leadership and Patriotism

Article originally published in the Philadelphia Business Journal on Sep 5, 2018

I have written many articles describing the traits of effective business and political leaders. The passing of Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona) provides an opportunity to reflect on those traits that differentiate McCain from his peers.

Since his death on Aug. 25 after a valiant battle with brain cancer, Americans have paid their respects to McCain, former congressman, presidential candidate and statesman, a true American hero and patriot. He was a man of courage, values, honor, ethics and integrity.

Accolades and expressions of respect have come from a broad array of both Republican and Democratic colleagues. What can we all learn about the leadership qualities of John McCain?

McCain was known as a maverick – a courageous leader and patriot who did what he thought was right, rather than what was politically expedient.

McCain served with honor as a naval aviator during the Vietnam War. He was shot down on his 23rd mission over Hanoi and was captured and brutally tortured while a prisoner of war from 1967 through 1973.

When the North Vietnamese learned that his father was an admiral in the U.S. Navy, they offered to release McCain from prison for propaganda purposes. McCain refused, demanding that those prisoners of war held longer be released first, consistent with the military code of conduct. He courageously placed principle above exposure to further torture and his freedom.

In 2008, when McCain was running for president, he defended his presidential campaign opponent Barack Obama against false allegations that Obama was an Arab and was not born in the U.S. – a common claim among those in the birther movement. At a campaign event in Minnesota, McCain responded to a woman making those allegations by stating, “No ma’am, he’s a decent family man, a citizen that I happen to have fundamental disagreements with…”

In today’s toxic political atmosphere, the defense of a political opponent rarely happens. He did what was right, rather than let the false allegations against Obama stand.

As a legislator, McCain practiced the art of compromise. He reached across the aisle to his Democratic colleagues in the Senate to get legislation passed. He was often criticized by his Republican Senate colleagues for selling out conservative principles. Both the Republican and Democratic parties are increasingly dominated by doctrinaire views. This is not in our country’s best interest.

In August 2017, I wrote an article headlined, “
Trumpcare Was Stopped in Its Tracks. Will the Republicans Now Invite the Democrats to the Table?

The Senate bill known as the Health Care Freedom Act, President Donald Trump’s signature legislative health care initiative, came to a vote on July 28, 2017. McCain and two other Republican senators voted “no,” resulting in one vote short of the 50 needed to pass the HCFA.

McCain had deep concerns about the legislation that might ultimately be passed by the Republican-controlled House and Senate, which the Congressional Budget Office projected would result in as many as 32 million people losing their health care insurance over time due to high cost and insufficient funding going forward. The loyalty of McCain was to his constituents and those Americans at risk for losing their health insurance, not the Republican party, and not the president.

McCain demonstrated courage in voting against the HCFA, unlike some of his Republican Senate colleagues, who placed loyalty to party above the welfare of the people who elected them. They would likely vote for any Republican health care legislation no matter how bad it was.

At his funeral service, McCain was eulogized by both former Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama.

In his remarks, Bush said, “John was honorable, always recognizing that his opponents were still patriots and human beings. … John detested the abuse of power. He could not abide bigots and swaggering despots. There was something inside him that made him stand up for the little guy. To speak for forgotten people.

“Courage and decency defined John’s calling, and so closely paralleled the calling of this country. … At various points in his long career, John confronted policies and practices that he believed were unworthy of this country. … To those in authority, John would insist that we are better than this. America is better than this.”

Former President Barak Obama said, “John believed in honest argument and hearing other views. He understood that if we get into the habit bending the truth to suit political expediency or party orthodoxy, our democracy will not work. That’s why he was willing to buck his own party at times. … [and] champion a free and independent press as vital to our democratic debate.

“John understood, as John F. Kennedy understood, as Ronald Reagan understood, that part of what makes our country great is that our membership is not based on our bloodline [or] … where our parents or grandparents came from or how recently they arrived, but adherence to a common creed that all of us are created equal.”

During her eulogy, McCain’s daughter, Meghan McCain remarked to the applause of the attendees, “The America of John McCain has no need to be made great again because America has always been great.”

Meghan McCain was sending Trump a direct message. Bush and Obama were more subtle in contrasting the values of John McCain with those of our current president.

The phrase “country before party” comes to mind as John McCain’s legacy to our country. All of our elected representatives should take a lesson. They pale in comparison to him. We will miss you, John McCain. Thank you for your service. Rest in peace.

Stan Silverman is founder and CEO of Silverman Leadership. He is a speaker, advisor and nationally syndicated writer on leadership, entrepreneurship and corporate governance. Silverman earned a Bachelor of Science degree in chemical engineering and an MBA degree from Drexel University. He is also an alumnus of the Advanced Management Program at the Harvard Business School. He can be reached at Stan@SilvermanLeadership.com. 

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