The Flaws of Leadership by Example

By Lieutenant Dustin League, U.S. Navy

Leadership is the lifeblood of the U.S. Navy. There is nothing that can be attributed to a person that is more highly valued, lauded, or sought after in our organization. From the first day of boot camp to every change of command and retirement ceremony, leadership is preached as the ultimate personal quality. For a term we use so freely, we also spend an inordinate amount of time debating its nature. Because it is the core tenet of our organization, one might expect that we had solved the puzzle by now. Instead, we argue over whether it can be taught or is innate, how can it be intrusive or empowering, and what other traits contribute to it. What is it about leadership that makes it so much harder to define than the attributes so often associated with it, such as charisma, efficiency, intelligence, ambition, and morality?

I believe we struggle to find a common definition because we all relate to leadership in different ways. We all choose our heroes and grapple with the question of leadership through their example. Those heroes may be personal—family members or those with whom we have served—or historical, even drawn from fiction. It is only natural that we gravitate toward heroic models that resonate for different reasons, but because of this we have failed to find a concise definition.

My father is a carpenter and architect, and my education was in physics and engineering. By temperament and training, I prefer to deal with root causes and fundamental principles, building up from them instead of applying individual cases across a broad spectrum. While it is possible to find success in leadership by emulating predecessors, imitation does not substitute for genuine understanding. To truly grasp leadership, I have embarked on a journey to find its root principles. History and literature gave me models to follow and heroes toward whom to aspire, but it was in philosophy—the philosophy of the Meditations—that I found the fundamental nature of leadership: selflessness.

Imperfect Heroes

Historical heroes fail to illuminate ideal leadership because they are never perfect. For every great leader used as an example, there are flaws. We build up the “great men” and women by cherry-picking their success and positive attributes, while pushing their failings into the corners. Lord Horatio Nelson is lauded for his inspiring command at sea and his victories over the French, but his affair with Lady Hamilton—surely a failure of loyalty and honesty—are glossed over. Some argue that his personal failings are immaterial to any discussion of his leadership ability. But if that is the case, why did General David Petraeus suffer such a backlash when his extramarital affair was discovered? Similarly, if we were to hold up General Stanley A. McChrystal for his battlefield leadership, any discussion would have to separate his positive attributes from his lapses in judgment portrayed in the Rolling Stone article that ended his military career.

No individual throughout history can stand up to intensive scrutiny without having some flaw or failing revealed. So there is no perfect, single example on which to base our idea of leadership. We are forced either to ignore unpalatable traits in our heroes or study them piecemeal, putting the laudable to one side and the disgraceful to the other. George Washington and Thomas Jefferson both kept slaves; John Paul Jones was fired from Russian service over accusations of rape and admitted to employing a prostitute; Admiral Hyman G. Rickover was abusive to subordinates and insubordinate to the civilian authorities over him. Even legendary and mythical figures fail to live up to the ideal: the stories of King David gave us the Bathsheba Syndrome, and King Arthur was slain by the offspring of his own incest. This is not to say that these were not good leaders, but instead to show that none of them embody the perfect ideal of leadership. For me, trying to become the best leader I could by looking to historical models felt like trying to build a cathedral by looking at pictures of St. Peter’s Basilica and copying it: even though I could make a façade that was similar, I could never hope for it to survive if I didn’t understand the architectural principles involved.

Fictional Examples

Of course, the study of historical leadership models is not without merit. They serve a necessary purpose in translating the ideal into a more concrete and teachable mode, but it is important to understand their limitations. History should also not be our only source for material, because it comes fraught with all the petty failings of real individuals. Better, in some ways, are examples drawn from literature and the arts, because there individuals can be formed without defects or flaws; they are the architect’s concept drawing rather than the blueprint or the building.

Modern cinema offers two examples of what I see as the ideal leader, both from writer-director Ridley Scott. His epics Gladiator and Kingdom of Heaven present heroic leaders who demonstrate moral judgment and selfless devotion to causes, putting aside their own lives, honor, and glory. In Gladiator, Maximus Decimus Meridius is shown to be a powerful and respected general—his authority and potential influence are feared by Commodus—but in his discussions with the Stoic Emperor Marcus Aurelius (a name that will come up again), he demonstrates that he cares nothing for the trappings of power, has no need to assuage his ego, and serves only for the “dream of Rome.” His desire to escape execution is not for any thought of his own life’s worth, but for his family, and when he is finally victorious, his only command to the Praetorians is an attempt to restore that dream of Rome.

Kingdom of Heaven presents an even clearer example in the “perfect knight” Balian of Ibelin. Balian constantly makes the honorable decision regardless of the personal risk or cost to himself. He spares the life of his enemy, refuses to plot against his allies, and defends Jerusalem to protect its people. Balian defies every cynical suggestion that he take power for himself, including turning down King Richard the Lionheart and denying his own valor to strive toward his “Kingdom of conscience, or nothing.” When he has done everything in his power, achieving an unexpected moral victory, he willingly fades from public view without hope or desire of accolades.

Both these examples demonstrate heroic leaders capable of devoting themselves wholly to their cause and putting all their ability into its service, not for any hope of advancement or personal reward but because the cause itself is just. In many ways, literature and the arts bring us closer to the ideal leader and dramatize examples in a way that resonates with us. But we are still just looking at a finished product and trying to copy it instead of understanding it.

Reexamining the Criteria

Top-down definitions failed to give me the understanding of leadership I needed, so I attempted to focus less on the heroes themselves and drill down on what are considered their merits, to pick traits considered worthy and use them to construct a foundation. This too seemed lacking. It failed me because you cannot build something without knowing what it should look like at the end. It failed because to pick traits and use them to define leadership was to mistake the tools for the carpenter. Leaders are not defined by their charisma, ambition, or effectiveness—or they should not be—leaders are defined, or recognized, by their successes, which is everything they use to accomplish it. This is not to say ends justify means. But we must recognize that we are in an organization that requires mission accomplishment. Any model of leadership that fails to account for this is terminally flawed. What must be understood is that no single tool can be used to define great leadership. Each attribute taken alone or in the wrong proportion will lead to a flawed leader. Just as we can find defects in all historical heroes, we can find imperfect leaders who exemplify all of our prized traits.

If it is success for which our leaders must be shaped, then surely effectiveness should be the principal trait by which they are judged. Yet history is replete with examples of leaders who were highly effective but also deeply, if not horribly flawed. General William Tecumseh Sherman was perhaps the most effective of the Union generals during the Civil War; his drive across the Confederate states crippled their warfighting capability. But the same savagery that brought him such success has also made him a controversial figure, to say the least, and one rarely praised for his leadership. An even more drastic example is Vlad Tepes, who was very effective at keeping his Ottoman enemies out of Wallachia but has gone down in history with an unmatched reputation for cruelty.

Clearly we do not value success at any cost. We want leaders who win in ways we consider honorable. Ambition or drive is often considered an important trait, but the ambitious and flawed leader is even easier to unearth than the effective and flawed. Alexander the Great was both, but his ambition was perhaps his single most defining trait. There is scant evidence that he was motivated by anything other than personal drive, especially for his later campaigns in India and those planned for Arabia. Alexander was a man who willingly accepted, even encouraged claims of his own divinity; he killed one of his own lieutenants after that man disparaged his achievements. He led thousands of men across the world for no greater purpose than conquest. Alexander the Great is still praised for his leadership skills and achievements, but never universally; he is the epitome of the flawed “great man” of history.

The ability to inspire, to rally support behind oneself, is seemingly the very definition of leadership. But this is not the description that the U.S. Navy needs for good leadership. It is merely one tool that an ideal leader must have. Both Martin Luther King Jr. and Adolf Hitler had it, but only one of them should be even remotely considered a good leader. These are just a few examples of how seemingly laudable traits do not necessarily result in great leaders, and why building a framework for the ideal on such a basis is a faulty premise.

Back to Philosophy

Learning from historical and fictional examples helped provide an idea of what a great leader looks like, but the lens were always distorted. There were obviously some root principles at work, but the hero’s flaws obscured them. My education in physics and the Navy’s nuclear-power training pipeline had instilled in me a deep desire to understand everything down to its most basic principles. It is possible to create a perfect copy of something that will function; a recreation of St. Peter’s Basilica will stand. But you will never be able to build something new unless you understand why the original worked. I had to find a way to grasp the fundamental principles of a human concept. This is when I turned to philosophy and, perhaps not coincidentally, found my answers coming from another character in Gladiator.

Marcus Aurelius was, according to Machiavelli, the last of the good emperors, known as a philosopher-king even within his own time. Today he is still regarded as one of the greatest Stoic philosophers. His achievements as emperor are noteworthy, but to take his accomplishments and life as my role model would be to fall into the same trap against which I argued earlier. It was not Marcus’ life that I found so illuminating, as much as his writings. In his Meditations, he describes the ideals by which he strives to live. This is the method of understanding leadership that most appealed to me, this exploration of guiding principles. Philosophy, particularly Stoic philosophy, gave me the understanding that I needed to construct a concept of ideal leadership.

This is not to say I have lived up to it, but through its study, at least I now know toward what I am striving. I understand why St. Peter’s Basilica stands, and I can use those principles to build my own cathedral. I can build a leadership style that reflects my personality, traits, and abilities, knowing that it is fundamentally strong. The principle that I found in Stoic philosophy, and that I believe is the core of good leadership, is selfless service.

The Ideal Leader Is Selfless

Duty was everything according to Marcus Aurelius:

Let it make no difference to thee whether thou art cold or warm, if thou art doing thy duty; and whether thou art drowsy or satisfied with sleep; and whether ill-spoken of or praised; and whether dying or doing something else (The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, trans. George Long., vol. 2, part 3, Harvard Classics, 1909–14).

In Marcus’ philosophy, a leader should never be concerned with rewards or the praise that might come from success. He should concern himself only with doing what is best for the state he serves. This is selflessness. It is the abandonment of ego and pride to the cause that is greater than oneself. In the Navy we are called upon to serve the will of our nation, not ourselves, no matter what is our position. The more we set aside our own pride and ambition in service of that duty, the better we are able to achieve ideal leadership.

Alexander the Great was filled with his own ambition and pride, but an ideal leader has only one ambition: to serve his state. The success of the mission is not important as a way to prop oneself up or satisfy one’s own vanity. It is important because that is all the ideal leader exists to do. The leader must see that his only importance is as a facilitator for the successful completion of his tasks. The U.S. Navy is itself merely one tool in the hands of the government of the United States of America. How much more must the leaders within that organization see themselves merely as instruments of the U.S. Navy.

The ideal leader is willing to sacrifice everything of himself to his mission and to ask nothing in return. Napoleon Bonaparte’s invasion of Russia, Kara Mustafa Pasa’s assault on Vienna, and John Milton’s fall of Lucifer are all examples of leaders at the height of their power being undone when pride drives them to overreach the limits of their resources for victories that would have been prestigious but of questionable material and strategic value. They did not put the security and prosperity of the state above their own egos, a failure that echoes as loudly through history as any of their achievements.

Selfless leaders shape themselves to the demands of the position rather than forcing the system to adjust to their personalities and demands. All traits, abilities, and skills become tools for leaders to employ in service to the state. Paramount is the ability to know, for any given situation, what is required of them and the individuals they lead in order to accomplish the mission. Great leaders must develop judgment that relies first on information and second on the ability to translate information into action. Battlefield information is very important, but leaders must also have the background knowledge of what to do with that intelligence. They must also understand the motivations of their sailors and servicemen and how to best employ them; this is another kind of information, and acquiring it takes patience and diligence. Thousands of books, studies, and articles cover a vast field of knowledge applicable to us as U.S. Navy leaders. No one will ever be able to read and store all of this information. But it should be our constant quest to learn more, know more, and better apply that knowledge. Marcus Aurelius would have considered such study part of his duty as emperor. Our duty to our country does not end with our assigned tasks; we must be dedicated always to improving ourselves so that we may better serve our country.

Heroic models will never go away as a teaching tool. The Navy will never stop trying to define the qualities required to succeed, or figure out better ways to teach, instill, or bring out those qualities. It is our responsibility not just to mimic our predecessors, no matter how successful they were. We must understand the underlying reasons for their success. It is our duty to put aside the personal affinity we might feel toward any of these models and root out the principles on which we must each construct our own identity as leaders. The world could be filled with beautiful copies of St. Peter’s Basilica, but wouldn’t it be better filled with a thousand unique cathedrals all sharing the same principles of structural integrity?

Lieutenant League serves as the submarine-operations officer for Commander, Destroyer Squadron Seven. He conducted a historic home port shift to Singapore to serve as the operational commander for USS Freedom (LCS-1) and coordinate the CARAT series of bi-lateral exercises with regional partners. His previous assignments include electrical officer, chemical and radiological controls assistant, intel officer, and assistant operations on board the USS North Carolina (SSN-777).


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