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Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

John McCain: An Ethical Leader

John McCain (AP Photo/Amel Emric)

John McCain (AP Photo/Amel Emric)

Ann Skeet

Ann Skeet is the director of Leadership Ethics at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics. This article appeared originally in the San Jose Mercury News August 29, 2018.  Views are her own.

One of the strongest modern exemplifications of moral leadership is the life of Sen. John McCain. Not perfect, but principled, humble enough to admit mistakes, wise enough to learn from them,  McCain demonstrated how a strong character strengthened the impact he has had in the United States Senate.

Character and values are the cornerstones any of us bring to moments in our lives when we lead others and ourselves, as we all do.  Even someone noted for inconsistencies, as  McCain was, can deepen his influence by balancing imperfections with humility, accepting responsibility for mistakes and reliably serving others before himself.  He did this when he refused to receive special treatment and go home before other POWs captured ahead of him in the Vietnam War, and he did this every time he put the institution of Congress ahead of partisan interests.

In some ways, there is no such thing as ethical leadership — leaders have resources, power and information followers do not, tipping the scales in their favor in a way that one could argue is inherently unethical.  But people who offer leadership most effectively know this and work constantly to balance this reality as they do their work, accepting oversight and counsel from others, deploying systematic checks and balances willingly, as an acknowledgement that every human can be supported by the thoughtful reflection and guidance of other humans.

McCain’s early life experiences as a POW in Vietnam likely advanced the development of his moral judgment precociously, allowing him to be guided by his conscience freely at an earlier age than most.  He was aware even as he was breaching important relationships, like his first marriage, or his choice of running mate in 2008, that he was not perfect.  He accepted responsibility for mistakes he did make completely and applied what he learned to the next opportunity to serve others.

McCain modeled clarity of purpose refreshing in political times where others in elected office have struggled to get above the partisan fray.  He notably defended his opponent, candidate Barack Obama in the 2008 election, as a decent person who should not be painted as a foreigner or unworthy of the office of president. It’s a statement that this moment of civility and grace is so noteworthy for its rarity in recent political life.  At a moment in history when examples of ethical leadership are hard to find, it is hopeful to honor the life of someone who worked at leadership, truly practicing and developing his capacity in this realm as a muscle to be built in the service of others.  Perhaps the most important way that leaders serve is by offering hope.

Aug 29, 2018

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