Purpose, Passion, and Pride: The Leadership Lessons of John McCain Purpose, Passion, and Pride: The Leadership Lessons of John McCain

A tribute to Senator John McCain’s values based leadership lessons for small business owners.


Date: October 26,1967. 

Location: High above Hanoi, North Vietnam.

The Situation: Commander John McCain, a thirty-one-year-old American Naval pilot, was flying his twenty-third mission of the Vietnam war, part of a twenty-plane strike force over a power plant in central Hanoi.

As he approached the target zone, warning systems in his aircraft alerted him that he was being tracked by enemy fire-control radar. Like other American naval pilots in similar circumstances, he did not break off his bombing run. Instead, McCain held the descent from 9,000 to 3,500 feet until he released his payload.

As he started to regain altitude, the jet’s wing was blown off by a Soviet made anti-aircraft missile fired by North Vietnamese Air Defense Command battalion.

McCain’s plane spun out of control as he hit the ejection lever. The force of his exit fractured his left arm, his right arm in three places, and one of his knees. Knocked unconscious, he nearly drowned after parachuting into a lake in the middle of Hanoi.

Although he quickly regained consciousness, McCain used his teeth to inflate the life vest. Surrounded by a mob who kicked him and stripped his clothes, his left shoulder was crushed with the butt of a rifle, and his left foot and groin were bayoneted.

Transported to a prison known as the “Hanoi Hilton,” Commander John McCain became an American Prisoner of War. Forced to endure torture tactics by his captors for years, the rest is, as they say, is “history.” For his actions as a POW, McCain was awarded a variety of medals that would make any serviceman proud. 

However, by his own admission, who needs medals? Instead, he gained something much more valuable. From experiencing the mutual help and organized resistance of his fellow POWs, he came to understand that his earlier individualism needed to be tempered by a belief in causes greater than himself. Greater than his own survival.

Greater than his self-interests. 

That belief is central to the nature of purpose and its role in organizational leadership. Such individual conviction expressed in the cause of a higher purpose is why followers defer willingly to leaders.

They want to believe that their leader stands for something they too can believe is more important than themselves. History has shown time and again, for better or worse, that the majority of people follow leaders whose values they emulate. True leaders, hence, lead from their core convictions and provide their followers with examples of purposeful and principled living. 

With the wonderful tributes, dedications, and eulogies presented last week for the late, great John McCain, it is safe to assume most Americans know his story.

A two term Congressman and six term U.S. Senator, he ran for U.S. President and lost twice, though never wavered from his core values and love of country. He didn’t have to win either election to inspire and influence three generations of individuals who strive to make a difference in the service of others. 

In this polarized age of republicans and democrats, McCain was a rare politician who took the causes of his nation more seriously than he took himself. While he may have been defined by his patriotism, it was his leadership skill and style that make him such a force to be reckoned with.

While he was stubborn, playful, unpredictable, and even mischievous, he brought his whole self to work each day, driven by the straight talk that allowed him to cross the proverbial Washington battle lines with dedication and conviction.

As conventional politicians are often weary to admit anything other than their own greatness, what a pleasure to hear Senator McCain demonstrate vulnerability by recognizing his weaknesses and admitting mistakes and regrets. When asked in an interview what he would have done differently if he could do things again, his reply was, “The list is too long to recite in this meeting.” 

While he was competitive and loved to win, he accepted responsibility for his failings and will forever go down in history as the patriot who came to work each day driven by passion, purpose, and pride of country. While the official U.S. Navy motto is “Semper Fortis (Always courageous), McCain will likely be remembered by living and leading according to the Navy’s unofficial motto, Non sibi sed patriae. 

Aptly translated to “Not for self but for country”, John McCain is a war hero to be remembered who inspired, persuaded, and provoked Americans to put others ahead of themselves as the most effective leadership strategy to move others closer to a cause. 

Thank you, John McCain, for your years of unyielding service to others. We live each day knowing that your contributions in this world made a significant difference in the lives of so many. There is no higher calling. 

Chuck Garcia is………Non sibi sed patriae: “Not for self but for country.” 

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Chuck Garcia
Chuck Garciahttp://chuckgarcia.com/about/
Chuck is an author, executive coach, keynote speaker, and CEO of Climb Leadership International. He coaches executives on public speaking and leadership communication. A 25-year veteran of Wall Street, he spent several of those in leadership positions at Bloomberg, BlackRock, and Citadel. He is also adjunct associate professor at Columbia University where he teaches leadership communication in The Fu Foundation Graduate School of Engineering and Applied Science. He leverages his business leadership experience, as well as his hobby of mountain climbing, to provide an effective teaching narrative for professionals applying his tools and techniques. In his book A Climb to the Top, an Amazon best seller, draws on years of coaching and consulting experience to explain how you can become a powerful and persuasive communicator. Chuck is a graduate of Syracuse University and has a Master’s Degree in Organizational Leadership. Website

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