Best Defense

Morality and leadership: Balance is required

Maj. Lonnie S. Christian: Leadership and morality go hand-in-hand.


By Maj. Lonnie S. Christian, USMC
Best Defense guest respondent

Reading Tom Ricks’ blog post titled “Against Morality Equaling Leadership” has provoked me to think hard about its implications.

From my childhood I was taught by my parents to be a person of character and this was done by a strong Christian upbringing. This transfer of Christian teaching and parental character training was reinforced by my drill instructors during Marine Corps boot camp, where they imparted upon me the core values of Honor, Courage, and Commitment. It is my belief that in order to be a good leader it is important also to be morally grounded. Easy to say but much harder to live out. Should our personal conduct matter to others?

I am of the belief that personal conduct should matter, especially in the military, where personal example is placed rather firmly on a high pedestal. If a military member is not morally grounded in their personal life the chances of character flaws surfacing at work become exponentially higher.

Tom Ricks gives two examples to spur critical thinking amongst his readership. First, he provides a quick comparison of two former presidents; George W. Bush and Bill Clinton where the first is considered to be the more moral man of the two while the latter is considered to have been the better president overall. If economics trumps morality in this particular case then I can fully understand why Clinton would get the approval of so many even in spite of his moral failings. I only wish we did not have to make such a choice. Tom Ricks raises the question of what we as a society should tolerate in personal behaviors of our politicians. This very topic should be debated long and hard. It should be a very frank conversation. In the military we are instilled with values that must be upheld in order to maintain the discipline and cohesiveness required of a professional military. The civilian leaders should in my opinion be held to a similar standard of conduct in order to set a strong example for society to follow. Taking this theme even further, I would add at the very least the president of the United States who also serves as Commander-in-Chief should be held to the same code of ethics and standards that he holds the military. Respect for each other must be present, and it is not good when it is not.

Second, Tom Ricks brings up the example of General Dwight D. Eisenhower, a married man who also had a girlfriend by the name of Kay Summersby while he was stationed overseas. The question is raised whether or not General Dwight D. Eisenhower should have been relieved of his duties on the eve of the D-day invasion. A great question, I must say, especially given that President Franklin D. Roosevelt himself had his own girlfriend on the side and would have been the one to relieve him of his duties. A messy situation to say the least, and also partially explains why he wasn’t relieved. It is kind of hard to get rid of someone for infidelity when you are in violation of the same offense. It is important to note, from the history that I have read regarding the infidelity of Eisenhower, Roosevelt, and Clinton, that in each case their wives were not very happy once they found out. So does infidelity at the highest levels of our government and military matter? My personal belief is that infidelity is absolutely wrong no matter who is involved, because trust, credibility, and mutual respect are broken and personal character is tarnished. In short, personal conduct matters and what General Eisenhower did was wrong.

The military requires personal discipline and credibility for it to run effectively. Anything that intrudes upon the good order and discipline of the military should be verbally discouraged at the very least and appropriate punishment rendered under the Uniform Code of Military Justice when warranted. In my opinion, leadership and morality go hand-in-hand. If one element is missing an imbalance occurs. I do not think it is a stretch to say that this imbalance can be crippling to a person, a family, and even a nation.

Lonnie S. Christian, Jr. is a Major in the U.S. Marine Corps and serves as an administration officer (Adjutant). Major Christian is currently attending the U.S. Naval War College. Major Christian was also a member of Parris Island Platoon 3086 in 1995, which was the subject of Tom Ricks’ book Making the Corps. This article represents his own views, which are not necessarily those of the U.S. Marine Corps, the Naval War College, or the Department of Defense.

U.S. Army

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at Twitter: @tomricks1

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