The point is not that the military is always or even usually right -- frequently its first inclination or recommendation is off the mark, inadequate, or undesirable. And that's why civilian leaders need the ability to rigorously assess plans, forging a solid civil-military partnership, all the while holding the military to account. ("And general, what's our Special Forces option if things suddenly go pear-shaped in Libya?")
A decision-maker who's never seen combat should lean on smart folks who have -- think veterans like Jim Webb, Bing West, or George Mitchell -- to credibly say what many people might not want to hear. The odds of creative alternatives and better outcomes resulting would go up astronomically.
Second, true leadership requires a dedication to others.
One of the key elements missing among today's leaders is "other-centeredness." We have leaders who are fixated on their own ambitions, their next career move, and narrow interests, not on the common good. True leaders look out for others at their own expense, at their own peril. In the Marines, leaders are judged by their ability to generate results and take care of their Marines.
Unfortunately, recent administrations have seen presidents and top officials who have marvelously polished resumes, unbridled fascination with themselves, unmatched ability to elbow up to rostrums and self-promote. They try to distract us from their dinner mint-thin real accomplishments, only to reveal their lack of mettle as they learn on the job, leaving pronounced blunders in their wake. Yale scholar William Deresiewicz called such leaders skilled "hoop jumpers" -- they are merely accomplished at appearing accomplished.
The flawed business of appointing or electing people who check all the right boxes, collect all the right "merit badges," attend all the right schools, whose accomplishments are merely personal, is costly and unsound. Leadership is a trait, not a position.
How can we tell when a leader is made of the right stuff?
Every individual has two personalities: their normal one and the one that appears under stress. If we study a potential leader's past, we should hunt for evidence that they experienced or put themselves into vulnerable situations, under stress, and they performed exceptionally well, took risks, and even risked themselves, their careers, or their futures for others. Combat is the most obvious caldron where "skin in the game," bravery, moral courage, and heroism frequently abound. But it's not the only one.
Lincoln was never in the military, and neither was FDR. But both had been tested in other ways and proved to be exceptional commanders in wartime.
The late Sen. Daniel Inouye, who lay in state last week in the Capitol, embodied all the traits of a true leader. He spent 50 years honorably representing the people of Hawaii in Congress, received the Medal of Honor for acts of extraordinary combat heroism that cost him his arm while fighting the Nazis, desegregated the House cafeteria by walking in with a black man, and shepherded a remote island territory into statehood. Senator Inouye demonstrated true leadership at every stage of his life.
The right leaders can be hard to find, but they do exist.
Consider former Sen. Chuck Hagel, a possible nominee to be the next secretary of defense. Hagel was born of middle class stock not privilege, he was tried by combat in Vietnam, he rose to become a successful business executive, senator, and educator. Thirty years ago, as the deputy in President Reagan's Veteran's Administration, Hagel displayed moral courage by supporting the now-treasured design for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Faced with bitter opposition and told he would be fired for his position, Hagel replied: "I serve at the pleasure of the president. If he fires me for supporting a design ... so be it." There are few better former Army sergeants available to go toe-to-toe with the Pentagon brass and wrestle the best future for our defense from the status quo. A Hagel tenure could be a signature success of the Obama administration.
We need to attract heavy hitters for leadership roles who are canny but proven selfless leaders from among our communities, bipartisan in their DNA, able to play hardball when hardball is the game, but also sensitive to the needs and realities faced by ordinary Americans.
We need leaders who act boldly, dare greatly, and risk losing their own comfortable futures by their decisions. We need to radically change the nature of our national leadership so as to ensure that we are not truant to America's true promise.