Exclusive: The Commander-in-Chief – Leading by Example

by TIM WILSON February 18, 2009
“Will you participate in the Presidential public financing system? – Yes”
Sen. Obama’s written answer to a questionnaire released Oct 30, 2007
“Men may be inexact or even untruthful in ordinary matters and suffer as a consequence only the disesteem of their associates or the inconvenience of unfavorable litigation, but the inexact or untruthful soldier trifles with the lives of his fellow men and with the honor of his government, and it is therefore no matter of pride but rather a stern disciplinary necessity that makes West Point require of her students a character for trustworthiness that knows no evasions”
Extract from comments by Secretary of War Newton D. Baker on the West Point Honor System
The role of the President as Commander-in-Chief of the military of the United States is one which carries both great privilege and enormous responsibility. It demands a leadership function for which few can claim to be fully prepared. As such, it behooves those considering the role to at least research the principles involved and to attempt to live up to the expectations of those whom they are appointed to lead. For while many politicians make full use of the privileges, some – especially those with no prior military experience – have a tremendous misunderstanding of the responsibilities.
One of the most common areas of misunderstanding is of the behavior which our troops expect of their leadership, who often seem not to realize that respect, like trust, is a two-way affair. As Commander-in-Chief, the President commands respect and loyalty, but one of his most important duties is to keep that respect by his words and his actions. Once respect begins to fade, whether from lack of leadership or from failure of moral standards, it is but a short ride to lowering standards and even to dissent by a group who, while politically neutral (and hence often ignored or even disdained), control enormous practical power.
It is for that reason that, if they understand nothing else, all Presidents should understand, and try to live up to, the ethos behind the quote given above as an example of military standards of behavior. West Point epitomizes those standards expected from their leadership, and therefore the expectations of the military as a whole. Failure to live up to those standards can only have a detrimental effect on the military, currently the most potent force on the planet, and on the country as a whole.
“Of all the ingredients for great leadership, generating and sustaining an absolute sense of trust is the most important. Trust is hard to earn, easy to lose and, once lost, nearly impossible to regain.”
Great Leaders Are Made, Not Born by Mary Henrikson
As President Obama castigates business leaders for their failures – which he claims have led to the current financial crisis – and sets caps on executive compensation perhaps it is time for him to start leading by example? Certainly he has failed to do so thus far in his Presidency, an example which carries worrying implications for future military discipline. After all, this is the President who while campaigning promised, amongst other things, new standards of ethics and transparency from his Administration.
There was a promise to reform ethics in the new Administration: waived for William Lynn, the former Raytheon lobbyist who is now taking the number two position at the Pentagon and waived, amongst a number of others, to appoint Timothy Geithner to the Cabinet as Secretary of the Treasury – a man who, to put it bluntly, fiddled his taxes. Such appointments as these make a sham of the whole reform promise. Amongst the many hundreds of appointments made, there may only be a small number of such problem appointments, but the fact of there being any at all signals a lack of “character for trustworthiness that knows no evasions.”
There was a promise of transparency which included the statement that when it comes to signing bills into law: “you, the public, will have five days to look online and find out what’s in it before I sign it.” Unlike the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act and the S-CHIP bills, which were signed before appearing on the White House website, it seems that the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) will almost meet this pledge, but almost is not good enough. While the public was granted almost five days online for public comment, it appears that members of Congress have not even been given time to read it, much less examine and comment, before being required to vote on it. Yet this is perhaps the most important piece of financial legislation in modern times, and is certainly the most expensive spending bill in history, committing present and future generations to costs which may send the nation into bankruptcy rather than recovery. Haste may be in order, but this is rash beyond any definition of either leadership or duty of care.
Then there is the trivial, yet important, matter of the heating of the White House. While President Obama may enjoy working in his shirt sleeves in Hawaiian heat, it sets a terrible example to the entire Government apparatus. Were he to turn down the Oval Office thermostat to a more seemly 68 degrees (as recommended by the EPA) this would save an estimated 4% on the heating bill from the reported 72 degree setting. If this was then mandated across all Government buildings, millions of dollars would be saved to help fund the economy. It might mean that President Obama has to wear a sweater to be comfortable, but it seems likely that he already has a number of those which he wore in Chicago and which Michelle has already approved. This would be a very small personal sacrifice for a disproportionately large act of leadership.
While such broken campaign promises are nothing new, nor large in themselves, they bode ill for a man whose responsibility as Commander-in-Chief carries the weight of meeting the expectations of all those serving their country in uniform. The role of Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces of the United States of America is, as with all the other roles of the Presidency, a function of leadership. One of the basic tenets of leadership is that it carries great responsibility – “the buck stops here!” As a former member of the Senate which led this country to its current parlous state, perhaps President Obama might consider accepting some of the blame for our current problems before moving on to his solutions instead of trying to blame all ills on his predecessor?
In the same way as Lee Iacocca famously transformed Chrysler following their 1979 bailout, by setting an example to follow, President Obama might consider taking a salary cut until the current crisis is over? The message this would send to the entire world, but most especially to all Government employees, would provide as much of an immediate boost to the economy as any expected improvements arising from the ARRA. If he could further persuade our elected representatives to follow his example, it would not only provide significant immediate savings in Government spending, but might even lift the public approval ratings of Congress from their current doldrums.
Leadership by example is something our military have a right to expect from their Commander-in-Chief. President Obama, do more than just turn down the thermostat in the Oval Office. Get rid of the tax cheats in your Cabinet, fire the Lobbyists you have appointed to senior government posts, honor your promises on transparency and generally be a man of your word – give us all a break and set a series of examples we can all follow!
Family Security Matters Contributing Editor Tim Wilson is a retired British Army officer who now works as an independent consultant. Feedback: editorialdirector@familysecuritymatters.org.

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