Ethical leadership lessons from John McCain

In a recent post, Dr. Linda Henman wrote about what set John McCain apart as a leader and a teacher. Here I select a few attributes of McCain to show how he was also a model of ethical leadership for those of us in the corporate world.

  • Civility must define leadership. We must use radical empathy to realize that others have a good reason to behave the way they do. We often don’t know their history and the context of their current life. Sometimes, they themselves don’t understand why they do what they do. By accepting that they are as they are, we can treat everyone with civility.
  • You can disagree without being disagreeable. We do this by taking the time to understand the other and by deploying kindness. Once people feel understood, they are more likely to accept that someone else might see things differently. Ask good questions, rephrase what you’ve heard to make sure you understand, and then politely explain your point of view.
  • Refuse to be a victim. Life might be random but it’s not unfair. All of us will have a bad boss, will get laid off, or won’t be recognized for our good work at some point. None of it is bad unless we think it so. As Marcus Aurelius said, “Choose not to be harmed and you won’t feel harmed. Don’t feel harmed and you haven’t been.”
  • Have a sense of humor. We do serious work but that’s not a reason to take ourselves too seriously. If we remember that not much matters other that family, friends and health, it’s easy to laugh at the “problems” we face. Most of us know people who have suffered tragic losses and still kept their sense of humor. My dad, who came within inches of losing his life to cancer, used to quip “Other than my cancer, I’m in great health!” Now, I’m not saying that humor saved his life. But it certainly help him and those around him during the difficult years.

John McCain was an extraordinary individual who practiced his philosophy every day. Even in death, he remains a great role model.

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