Admiral Stockdale on the Moral Requirement for Leadership
Religion & Liberty Online

Admiral Stockdale on the Moral Requirement for Leadership

Earlier this week I reviewed Defiant, the riveting new book by Alvin Townley. Admiral James B. Stockdale (1923-2005) is a principal figure in Townley’s account about POWs in North Vietnam. Stockdale’s famous to many for being Ross Perot’s vice-presidential running mate in 1992. He was widely ridiculed for his rather clumsy and cluttered performance in the debate. Republican political consultant Ed Rollins offered this marked observation of the debate in his book Bare Knuckles and Backrooms:

Of all of the political injustices in my lifetime, what happened to Jim Stockdale was the greatest. Congress should pass a law requiring every person who laughed at him during the vice-presidential debate to read the citation that explains why Stockdale received the Medal of Honor for his conduct as a senior prisoner of war in Hanoi for more than eight years. This man is a great academic scholar, a true war hero, and a wonderful human being – the best the military and this country has to offer. He deserved better.

While the citation testifies alone to his impeccable leadership, Townley’s book made me dig out my copy of Thoughts of a Philosophical Fighter Pilot by Stockdale. I shared these poignant comments by Stockdale on public virtue and our federal debt on the Powerblog in 2009. The book is a gem, and it’s worth sharing a few of his thoughts on morality and leadership, especially since the trait is clearly lacking by so many of our leaders today.

In a 1985 essay titled “Trial By Fire,” Stockdale declared:

First, in order to lead under duress, one must be a moralist. By that, I don’t mean being a poseur, one who sententiously exhorts his comrades to be good. I mean he must be a thinker. He must have the wisdom, the courage, indeed the audacity to make clear just what, under the circumstances, the good is. This requires a clear perception of right and wrong and the integrity to stand behind one’s assessment. The surest way for a leader to wind up in the ash can of history is to have a reputation for indirectness or deceit. A disciplined life will encourage commitment to a personal code of conduct.

In the same essay, Stockdale closed by noting, “The key to our future leaders’ merit may not be ‘hanging in there’ when the light at the end of the tunnel is expected. It will be their performance when it looks like the light will never show up.”

That last line highlights perfectly an overarching theme of Stockdale’s observation on leadership; that real leadership and moral guidance is tested not in the good times, but in times of failure. In a 1994 lecture titled “Conflict and Character,” Stockdale notes:

The challenge of education is not to prepare people for success but to prepare them for failure. I think that it’s in hardship and failure that the heroes and the bums really get sorted out.

In a 1981 commencement address at John Carroll University, Stockdale stated the key principle of leadership, which is servanthood:

From this eight year experience, I distilled one all-purpose idea, plus a few corollaries. It’s a simple idea, an idea as old as the scriptures, an idea that is the epitome of high-mindedness, an idea that naturally and spontaneously comes to men under pressure. If the pressure is intense or of long enough duration, this idea spreads without even the need for its enunciation. It just takes root naturally . . . That idea is you are your brother’s keeper.

Ray Nothstine

Ray Nothstine is editor at the Civitas Institute in Raleigh, North Carolina. Previously, he was managing editor of Acton Institute's Religion & Liberty quarterly. In 2005 Ray graduated with a Master of Divinity (M.Div) degree from Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Ky. He also holds a B.A. in Political Science from The University of Mississippi in Oxford.