Dr. John E. Johnson

Dr. John E. Johnson


Given the current political landscape, a lot has been written on character. There is a noticeable lack of moral excellence in these days. In a July article, “A World in Crisis and No Genius in Sight,” Peggy Noonan laments over a lack of impressive leaders. What we need is another cycle of “genius clusters”–where providence brings together a core of formidable leaders, be they political (John Paul II, Reagan, Thatcher) or military (Marshall, Montgomery, MacArthur). But these clusters generally need a deep crisis.

One of my summer reads has been Borneman’s MacArthur at War. One comes away with the realization that some of these revered leaders of the past had their own character flaws as well. In his epilogue, “A Study in Superlatives,” Borneman sums up Douglas MacArthur. For all of his military genius as a Five Star general in the Pacific theatre of war, he was full of himself. His massive ego could not admit the possibility that he was wrong, and it forced him to cover up his mistakes, MacArthur fought many military and political battles, and there were many wins and losses, but his greatest loss came in a campaign he waged his entire life: the one against himself. He was brilliant, charismatic and decisive, but he was also manipulative, deceitful, and egocentric.

Still, MacArthur could get away with his vanity and grandiosity because, as Borneman notes,  America in the forties needed an idol. MacArthur became the symbol of determined resolve–America as a fortress against the world. Is something like that going on today? Is this why some are willing to look past character when it comes to electing a leader?

Norman Schwarzkopf, an army general of another era, once wrote: “Leadership is a potent combination of strategy and character, but if you must be without one, be without strategy.” What I believe our times hunger for is someone with character, who is not caught up with self. Someone who, as David Brooks puts it in his The Road to Character, runs from pride and pursues the kind of humility that has made an accurate assessment of self. Leaders who are humble carry a posture of submission; indebtedness (I’m abandoned to your needs);  learning; acknowledging rather than justifying mistakes; and a certain indifference to the role. Like Jesus–they descend to greatness. Where are they today?

I can’t remember the source, but someone once said of a President, “It is a great advantage to a leader, and a major source of safety to the country, for him to know he is not a great man.”  Reading MacArthur, and reading the news, I am reminded we need such safety today. 

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