What People Teach Us: John McCain And The Leader’s Legacy

Leadership Lesson: There are so many lessons we can learn from the leaders we’ve lost. Learning from their best attributes galvanizes their legacy and reinforces our own development and self-reflection.

It’s always sad to lose a great leader. Every day they lived they added strength to their reputation and resolve to their message. They knew how to live their life, espouse and live their values, and work for the betterment of the group. And, although that impact continues through their legacy, the lack of their everyday presence creates such an immense void beyond the obvious physical absence. We lose the everyday visual display of their impact and influence.

And as powerful as that sounds, none of it means you had to agree with every decision they made or position they took. There may have even been moments where you bitterly disagreed on issues. But you knew that in the end you were dealing with someone of integrity and honor, overall.

So, although we may not agree with all the details of a leader’s actions or beliefs, we should try to take away the best lessons from their overall way of being. Their best lessons provide enough reason to gain our respect.

Arizona Senator John McCain drew that kind of respect from all over the world. He garnered respect and was revered in the U.S. political arena by people from across the political spectrum. When someone like that passes away, it’s not only their life that ends, but a light also seems to go out. In his case, that light was represented in his way of being, a way of communicating with others, a way of working with others, the example and standard he set.

Senator McCain provided so many great moments — even in spite of the kind of self-admitted shortcomings anyone might have — that demonstrate dramatically against today’s accepted behaviors just how powerful and simple a great leadership demeanor can be.

All those abilities are seemingly rare in today’s society. Today, if you don’t agree with someone on one topic, it’s a safe assumption and foregone conclusion by everyone involved that no other positions on any other issue by either side will be respected by the other. We can’t seem to separate the issue or topic from the person and character. This is a growing trend in the political debate, and it’s contributing to the divisiveness in the country.

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So, to honor all people we lose, no matter where they sit in a hierarchy of power and influence or what kind of work they carried out in their lives, we need to look to what the good attributes are they lived and how we can ingrain them in our own lives and work.

Look at each of the lessons found in this article’s list of McCain most powerful quotes.

1. Finding his love for his country while being held prisoner.

We all won’t experience what McCain went through, and we can never understand the mental fortitude it takes to survive such captivity, but we can recognize how important it is that we understand what’s at stake in our lives and realize what we take for granted. Much of McCain’s demeanor as a political player was no doubt shaped by his experiences as a POW. In his best moments, he saw what was at stake and what people might take for granted – our country and freedom.

Lesson: When you know what is worth fighting for, you work to make sure people keep focus on true value and what shouldn’t be taken for granted.

2. “We are Americans first”

“Let us argue our differences. But remember we are not enemies.” That says it all – and seems to fly in the face of what America is facing these days.

Lesson: You can have the most heated discussion and/or debate with someone, but know that the person whom you’re going head-to-head with has something at stake, just like you. Disagree, but don’t dismiss.

3. Defending Obama

A true measurement of integrity underpins this one. We can disagree on issues as much as possible, but let’s not resort to baseless mudslinging.

Lesson: Keep the fight honorable, founded on skill and merit, not anchored in pettiness and denigration.

4. Conceding

Conceding is never easy, but McCain was gracious even in defeat. Although many may use the similar, underlying talking points in a standard concession speech, the credit of his character and integrity provided great weight to his words as he walked away from the loss.

Lesson: Even in a loss, great leadership examples can be found. How one reacts to defeat is just as powerful as what one can deliver in a win.

5. On Osama bin Laden’s Death

He understood, from being on the front lines himself, what goes into war and loss.

Lesson: We can’t get lost in our work and mission. We have to stay grounded with our right purpose and reasoning.

6. Defending the release of the CIA torture report

Here he wants to reinforce that politicians are there, in essence, to serve the customer – the U.S. citizen.

Lesson: The stakeholders deserve the information they’re entitled to. No matter how hard things are to swallow, there is always the right thing to do.

7. Responding to Donald Trump’s stance on torture

He spoke truth to power when he felt compelled, while most in his own party stayed silent.

Lesson: One’s values cannot be compromised so as to keep the boat from rocking.

8. His defense of the Khan family

More speaking of truth to power. 

Lesson: Our leaders always need to be held accountable when their behaviors besmirch the office or title they hold.  One cannot blindly forgo what is right, by providing anyone a pass.

9. His call for return to regular order

Ok, this one may be my personal favorite. We need to call out bullshit when we see it. When egos and selfishness are tearing down communications, compromise, and collaboration, we have to call it out.

Lesson: By not calling out what tears people apart and what is wasting time, we are foregoing value, character, relationships, and the greater success of all involved.

10. His attack against “spurious nationalism”

Again, his powerful words echoed in the silence held by most of those in his party. When most may feel satisfied when they hold the majority, as the Republican party had, that’s the time when great leadership is needed, to state in no uncertain terms which values and standards cannot be corrupted or forgotten.

Lesson: This is more speaking truth to power. Power cannot continue to go unbridled if it goes too far off the rails. People – leadership included – need to be kept in check when their words don’t match the established and storied tradition and mission of the company – or country – in question.


Words matter. Actions matter. Positions matter.

So much of what made up John McCain’s legacy and reputation, beyond his heroism in war and captivity, were his words when he chose to speak up against what he saw as unfair or wrong.

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Very few leaders can carry that kind of weight in their words. They may even use the same words, but there’s something about the delivery and experiences behind them that don’t reconcile or make them feel right. And McCain’s work in bipartisan efforts added to his fortified credibility. He demonstrated it wasn’t only about “our” side but that, from time to time, there would be a need to work with those with whom we disagree on most issues.

That bipartisan spirit, work, and defense demonstrated a lack of ideological ego – that it’s not “my way or the highway.”

Now, this wasn’t in every case or every political matter or issue. But it occurred enough to reap respect.

This type of service is immensely valuable but very rarely seen. It’s a skill set of powerful attributes that are diminishing in and escaping from our society.

We may not feel we can agree with everything a leader says, but don’t lose sight of the great lessons we can take away from someone’s demeanor, reputation, and legacy.



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