It has been said that good leaders flourish in times of crisis. In fact, and from personal hard-won experience, I can assure you that crisis is the key critical test of leadership. Some rise to the occasion. Others fall by the wayside. Unfortunately, the latter case reflects the current reality in America. Today the crisis is a viral pandemic.
Like all professional military officers, I am a student of leadership. I have studied the skills needed; lived them in the field; discussed the matter ad nauseum with friends and colleagues; taught classes and given presentations on the subject; written and published about the core issues; and read a multitude of books on the topic. Decades ago, the U.S. Army War College even sent me a copy of their draft senior leadership manual (for colonels and generals) to review and comment on. I was surprised and honored by that request: At that time, I was a mere major.
What is good leadership?
President Dwight D. Eisenhower said, “The supreme quality for leadership is integrity.” There are few experienced government officials who would disagree. Based on both academics and experience, I can state without equivocation that three other qualities are also required: caring, competence, and humility. These are the benchmarks that all good leaders aspire to. Leaders that possess deep reservoirs of integrity; know their profession well (competence); are not arrogant in either word or deed (humble); and exhibit the attribute of empathy (caring) in support of their teams are near universally successful in meeting any challenge and overcoming all obstacles.
These remarkable individuals evoke profound respect, admiration, trust, and loyalty in us because they represent what is best and most noble of humankind. It could not be otherwise. Many of Gen. George Washington’s biographers believe that our first president clearly exhibited all four traits: winning him that most honorable appellation “Father of the country.” He is remembered and revered for his “character,” which is one way of summing up the essence of the man’s virtues. Sadly, there appears to be no Washington-like figure inside the Beltway’s current ruling political landscape.
In fact, and tragically, what we see today is largely the anti-thesis of President Washington’s virtues on display—mendacity, incompetence, selfishness, and arrogance all appear to reflect the rule rather than the exception within this White House. Tragically, these wholly negative characteristics can only evoke fear; sow anxiety; spread division; feed doubt; and fuel suspicion—no way to deal successfully with crisis at all. Such egregious deficits do not bode well. Good leadership has seldom mattered more for our nation; but it seems to have vanished like smoke in a strong wind. My maternal grandfather suggested to me many years ago: “Bobby, the fish stinks from the head down.” His wisdom continues to stand the test of time.
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Robert Bruce Adolph is a former Army special forces lieutenant colonel and United Nations chief security adviser, who holds graduate degrees in both international affairs and national security studies and strategy. His work has appeared in nearly every U.S. military publication of note. Most recently, he penned the commentary series “Dispatch from Rome” for the Military Times. Adolph also recently published the book entitled “Surviving the United Nations: The Unexpected Challenge.”