5 leadership lessons from the maverick of the Senate

Arizona Senator John McCain, known as a genuine war hero, a political maverick, straight talker, champion of bipartisanship in service to America, and two-time candidate for the Presidency, died over the weekend after a long fight with brain cancer.

His passing is feared to be end of political era of bipartisanship and selfless service to America. Newspapers from the New York Times to The Wall Street Journal and cable news networks from Fox News to MSNBC have provided tributes to him.

In the early 2000s, Senator McCain invited business leaders from Arizona to join him for a meeting to ask for our support for the creation of the Translation Genomics Research Institute (TGen) lab in the Phoenix Metropolitan Area. I was asked to represent Medtronic’s Phoenix operations at this meeting.

I was struck by his down-to-earth manner. When he entered the room, he smiled, greeted us all, had us introduce ourselves, and then he got right down to business. Clearly visible in his face were the scares from recent surgery to remove skin cancer. I noticed the posture of his arms broken by the ejection from his Navy fighter jet after his plane was shot down over Hanoi — and then from years of torture from his captors.

For a few moments, I lost track of what he was saying about TGen as I was overwhelmed by reflecting on the pain and sacrifice he endured in North Vietnamese captivity for our country, and then his leadership in the 1990s to have the US normalize relations with the nation that had brutally held him captive. He made this decision because he believed it was the right thing to do.  I marveled that he was here in front of asking for our support for a project that someday would contribute to our understanding of how to cure cancer.

When I think of Senator John McCain’s leadership, I am in awe of many of the traits he exhibited. All leaders should emulate them. Five stand out:

  • His dedication to a higher purpose than his own self-interest. All you need to understand about Senator McCain’s sense of higher purpose is knowing that when he was captured, the North Vietnamese offered to release him. They had learned he was the son of a US Navy Four-Star Admiral. Despite needing medical attention, he refused the offer because, as he later said, it would demoralize the other prisoners who would think that there are a different set of rules for the sons of admirals. He would not leave his fellow American prisoners and was made to suffer torture for his sacrifice. As he said later, “Nothing is more liberating in life than fighting for a cause larger than yourself.”
  • He managed by the “deck plates”, a naval term for managing by walking around. In addition to knowing the facts about any issue and being an avid reader, Senator McCain was known for seeking the input of the everyday man and women. Retired Rear Admiral John Kirby observed that, as a naval officer, Senator McCain learned early in his career not to manage from his office. He was taught to get out and mix with the troops to learn about their state of morale and to hear directly from the men and women of the armed services what was working and not working.
  • He mentored younger leaders. On Sunday morning’s talk shows, one Senator after another, both Democrats and Republicans, men and women, spoke about how Senator McCain mentored them.

Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina, upon learning about Senator McCain’s death released a statement saying, “I lost one of my dearest friends and my mentor.”

Former Republican Senator Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire said on CNN “He was a dear friend and mentor. He took me under his wing in the Senate on the Armed Services Committee… He fought for people who could not fight for themselves.” Former Senator Ayotte said that she hopes his death serves as a “calling for more decency, integrity, and honor in our politics.”[i]

Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar, a Democrat, mentioned on CNN that he mentored her and other women senators on how to perform on the world stage. She commented that she enjoyed his sense of humor.

  • He did the right thing based on values of decency, honor, and integrity. During the 2008 Presidential race against then-Senator Barrack Obama, a John McCain supporter at an Oct. 10th rally in Lakeville, MN, said she could not trust Senator Obama and called him an “Arab.” Senator McCain politely took the microphone from her and said, “No ma’am. He is a decent, family man, citizen, that I just happen to have fundamental differences with…”

On the night of his defeat against Barrack Obama for President of the United States, he understood the significance of President Obama’s election as the first African American to be elected President of the United States. He acknowledged the historic moment and sought to unify the nation. He said the following:

This is an historic election, and I recognize the special significance it has for African-Americans and for the special pride that must be theirs tonight.

I’ve always believed that America offers opportunities to all who have the industry and will to seize it. Sen. Obama believes that, too. But we both recognize that though we have come a long way from the old injustices that once stained our nation’s reputation and denied some Americans the full blessings of American citizenship, the memory of them still had the power to wound.

A century ago, President Theodore Roosevelt’s invitation of Booker T. Washington to visit — to dine at the White House — was taken as an outrage in many quarters. America today is a world away from the cruel and prideful bigotry of that time. There is no better evidence of this than the election of an African-American to the presidency of the United States. Let there be no reason now for any American to fail to cherish their citizenship in this, the greatest nation on Earth.

Sen. Obama and I have had and argued our differences, and he has prevailed. No doubt many of those differences remain. These are difficult times for our country, and I pledge to him tonight to do all in my power to help him lead us through the many challenges we face.[ii]

  • When he was wrong, he admitted it. When asked how he wanted to be remembered by CNN’s Jake Tapper, Senator McCain said, “He served his country, and not always right. He made a lot of mistakes. He made a lot of errors but served his country. And I hope could add, honorably.”

Business leaders can learn a lot from the example of the senior senator from Arizona not only about their leadership styles but about the culture to create for their organizations. Live a life of higher purpose, manage the deck plates, mentor younger leaders—even the ones who don’t look like you, do the right thing based on values of decency, honor, and integrity, admit when you are wrong.

Victor Assad is the CEO of Victor Assad Strategic Human Resources Consulting and is a Managing Partner of InnovationOne. He consults and provides “hands-on” support for innovation, global talent strategies, using digital technology to improve recruiting and retention, developing agile leaders and teams, and other strategic initiatives. Questions? Contact Victor at VA@VictorHRConsult.com or call him at 707-331-6740. Visit http://www.victorhrconsultant.com for more insights and his valuable free reports.


[i] Michael Burke (Aug 26, 2018, 10:43 AM EDT) “Ayotte: I hope McCain’s death is a ‘calling for more decency, integrity and honor in our politics’” The Hill. Found at http://thehill.com/homenews/sunday-talk-shows/403669-ayotte-i-hope-mccains-death-is-a-calling-for-more-decency.

[ii] “Transcript Of John McCain’s Concession Speech,” Nov. 5, 2008, 2:12 AM ET. National Public Radio. Found at https://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=96631784.


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