(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Over the coming weeks, many who have been involved in government of late will face moments of extreme challenge to their character. Ambassadors and Central Intelligence Agency officers, mid-career departmental officials and political appointees, military officers and businessmen – they and others will sit down across a polished desk from a Congressional investigator or a representative of an inspector general or a Federal Bureau of Investigation agent, who will swear them to an oath and turn on a tape recorder.
I have been there myself, and it is a terrible moment, full of personal peril, regardless of the institutional outcome. In many cases, it will be followed by an even more wrenching experience: testifying publicly or behind closed doors to Congress. How can these people find the inner strength both to be honest and to survive the ordeal?
I’ve testified often in front of Congress, from the time I was in my mid-30s as captain of a Navy destroyer through my tenure as the supreme military commander of NATO. But you never get used to it, especially to being battered by competing agendas. As a young officer, I sat before a committee panel in the mid-1990s that was debating whether the military was under excessive strain because of operational deployments. The Republicans and Democrats had very different ideas, and I was caught between them. The chief of naval operations, the most powerful person in the service to which I had devoted my life, and the head of Navy legislative affairs had given me a lot of “friendly advice,” and it was clear I was facing a potentially career-changing event.
Much later, after the 2011 intervention in Libya, I was testifying about events there, and whether there were terrorist groups on the scene. When I truthfully allowed that there were at least “flickers of al-Qaeda” present, the White House wasn’t pleased, because it undercut the prevailing narrative that there were no organized jihadists engaged with the opposition to the dictator Muammar Qaddafi. Sitting squarely in the middle between the political parties is not a happy place to be.
As we enter what may be the angriest political season since the Watergate crisis, Americans would be served well by reflecting on a very important distinction in the human makeup: the one between leadership and character. The two don’t always go hand in hand. Leadership is the influence we exert over others, and can be used for good or ill. Character, on the other hand, is how we lead ourselves on that inner voyage which tells us what is right and what is wrong.
We are awash in leaders who have been given extraordinary and powerful new tools. Consider the power for dark leadership granted by social networks; the ability to manipulate “news” in the most sophisticated technical ways; the preternatural speed of mass communications. But we are suffering a dearth of character; far too many seem willing to turn a blind eye to questions of honor and honesty, both in their personal decisions and in how they weigh the ethics of others. From the perspective of an investment portfolio, we are overweight in leadership and underweight in character.
In the course of my own voyage, and in the purpose of a new book, I've closely studied some of the most remarkable naval commanders in history, and have found both good and bad in each of them. Among the key elements of character they shared, to some degree, are resilience, empathy, decisiveness, creativity and determination. But of all positive qualities, the one I found consistently is the simplest: honesty. Sadly, honesty is also the quality most diminished in a world that seems to shrug off lies, half-truths and exaggerations with a cynical comment and a knowing look. While some of the admirals I’ve studied played it loose with the truth from time to time, all were at heart unafraid of the truth and wielded it with great effect at crucial moments in history.
I know some of the men and women who will be caught up in the upcoming investigation, and most of them strike me as people of strong and honest character. I wish all of them well as they endure interrogation and especially as they go forward to testify. (If, that is, White House lawyers don’t derail the whole process.) But above all, I hope they will answer with utter and complete honesty, regardless, as the saying goes, of fear or favor. Not all will meet that standard.
I am sure that in my appearances in front of Congress, I made unintentional factual errors. But I tried to hew to truth, wherever it led. We are about to learn a great deal more about the inner workings of this administration, and will be afforded the chance to assess the character of the U.S. president and those around him. We should appreciate the honesty of those who choose to come forward and testify openly; criticize those who refuse to do so willingly and honestly; and treat all with empathy and humility as we make judgments, knowing all too well our own personal foibles and mistakes.
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James Stavridis is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is a retired U.S. Navy admiral and former supreme allied commander of NATO, and dean emeritus of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He is also an operating executive consultant at the Carlyle Group and chairs the board of counselors at McLarty Associates.
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