Virtuous Leadership and Restoring the American Dream
Editor’s Note: This article is adapted from the author’s keynote address for the 29th Annual Rear Admiral Wetmore Ethics Forum, at the United States Coast Guard Academy early this year.
We Americans are at a particularly consequential moment for our republic — one that presents unique opportunities to contribute to veterans of our military. Despite the exceptionalism that defines the great experiment that is our nation, we seem to be losing our way as a country. We aren’t living up to the promise of America’s exceptionalism, and the American dream — the idea that anyone willing to work hard and play by the rules can succeed — is in bad shape. Eroding confidence sits at the core of this crisis. In recent decades, the American people have been losing confidence in three of our most important institutions: business, the media, and our government. The worse this trend gets, the harder it will be to revitalize the American dream.
What should our answer be to this perilous moment? And what, in particular, can members of our armed forces do to help fix this problem and create a brighter future for our country? In my view, the answer is something called virtuous leadership — something that has been in short supply in recent decades.
Why am I suggesting that those who have served in our armed forces should lead this charge?
Because a fourth institution important to America is its military, and it’s the one major institution the American people have not lost confidence in. It’s been trending up while confidence in the other three has been trending down. This should be no surprise. The non-partisan, meritocratic, color-blind, results-oriented ideals that have made the military a role model in recent decades have also helped it to win the confidence of the American people, in spite of the prolonged and costly “long wars” in Iraq and Afghanistan. Among other things, this suggests that the American public is most likely to judge its military on the values it represents and on its performance against strictly military objectives, and more willing to give its trust to those willing to risk their lives on behalf of their fellow citizens for modest financial reward.
But that also means it is up to those who have served, equipped with the values they represent, to help turn this ship around. No one can truly lead the transformation that is needed within our country without the confidence of the people. Veterans therefore can and should play a greater role in modeling the best of our country — and in doing so, help it back onto the right path, without upsetting the civil-military norms that are core to our national project.
Specifically, I’m suggesting that our country would benefit greatly from the transition of those who have served in the military — men and women, young and old, from all races and religions — to leadership positions in civilian life in business, journalism, and particularly elected politics, where they can bring their values and experiences to bear.
In doing so, I believe that our veterans can play a critical role in helping to restore the American dream.
America is a great country. We are the most powerful nation in the world — militarily and economically — but, most importantly, we are a great nation because we are an exceptional nation, one founded on a unique set of principles and values.
One of the most fundamental of these is the animating principle of American exceptionalism, the idea that America has a special responsibility to the world to ensure, as Lincoln said at Gettysburg, that “government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.” America, more than any other country in modern history, has pursued and in many ways realized that promise.
A second, related idea fundamental to the American experiment is the idea of individualism: “That government is best which governs least.” What “least” means practically is up for debate every two, four, and six years, when we have elections for the House of Representatives, the presidency, and the Senate. My own definition will emerge from this essay, but can be summarized as the minimum government required to ensure the constitutional rights of all citizens, along with real equality of opportunity.
This famous quotation about limited government comes from Thoreau’s essay on civil disobedience, in which he argued that any government that goes beyond what is necessary will lead to the atrophy of individual conscience — and with it, to acquiescence in injustice. Thoreau’s individualism is in fact necessary to American exceptionalism, because American exceptionalism is only possible because of the American dream, the concept that each individual citizen is provided the opportunity (but not the guarantee) of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness — which must practically include security and a modicum of material success.
But the American dream is in peril because of three things. First, we are losing the spirit of bipartisan reason fundamental to making good decisions that will sustain the American republic. Democrats and Republicans have rarely been further apart. Second, we are losing the American ethos of individualism within the context of a common purpose, the fundamental notion that the things that bring our citizenry together are more powerful than those that pull us part — but only if we avoid the temptation to think of ourselves as distinct sectarian groups, each with interests opposed to the others. Third, we are losing equality of opportunity, the fundamental American principle that says that anyone who works hard and plays by the rules can succeed.
These three principles are interdependent. Together they make up the fabric of the American dream, and right now that fabric is beginning to fray. Without these principles, the American dream unravels, and with it unravels American exceptionalism. If the American dream dies, America’s exceptionalism dies with it.
Losing the Spirit of Bipartisan Reason
When Benjamin Franklin left Independence Hall at the close of the Constitutional Convention, he was supposedly asked, “Well, Doctor, what have we got — a Republic or a Monarchy?” To which he replied, “A Republic, if you can keep it.” But we can only keep it if our elected representatives, Republican and Democrat, work together in the spirit of reason — prioritizing the good of the country over personal ambition or political party, based on a shared understanding of the truth. That is not happening today. It has been happening less and less for many years, but it’s particularly bad today.
Some of the most prescient of the founding fathers warned of factions and parties — and yet today Congress is utterly divided by partisanship — partisanship that clouds judgment, routinely puts the party’s success ahead of that of the country, and prevents compromise on the critical issues facing America. The explosive growth of social media is a big part of the problem because it incentivizes echo chambers and groupthink, beliefs that are particular to one faction, and even facts that are misleading or untrue, rather than a commonly-shared reality. Traditional media — a critical part of a free and functioning democracy — also often contributes by cherry-picking the facts to support the views its representatives and leaders wish to advance.
This approach runs completely counter to the merit-based, “truth at all costs” thinking that powers the world’s most successful companies, certainly including Bridgewater, the company I help run now — and, indeed, substantially powers the world’s most successful governments. Having lost “truth at all costs” thinking in so many arenas, is it any surprise that we are more divided than at any time since the Vietnam War?
From the military to the business world, it is crucial that we emphasize truth at all costs with regard to important decisions. History is littered with militaries that selected leaders and made decisions based on false ideas, subsequently going down in defeat — sometimes taking their countries with them. America’s military has made its share of mistakes, like all institutions, but its fundamental ideals and ethos are true, and its idea of leadership truer still.
Losing Our Ethos of Individualism Within the Context of a Common Purpose
In 1782, the U.S. Congress adopted a Great Seal with a national motto: e pluribus unum – “out of the many, one.” You can read it on any coin in your pocket. And yet we seem to have turned e pluribus unum into “Out of the many …” Well, what, exactly?
It’s certainly not “one.” And it’s not just party dividing us. All too often today we are defined first and foremost by race, gender, and ethnicity. We are increasingly segregated and divided, talking past one another, making assumptions based on how we look rather than how we act or what we think, all at the expense of our common commitment to the good of the country and the advancement of all Americans.
In 1988, at the age of 22, I showed up straight out of West Point and then Ranger School as a new 2nd Lieutenant to join the 82nd Airborne Division in Fort Bragg, North Carolina. I took over a platoon comprised over time of, among others, a southern Baptist from Alabama, a Puerto Rican from Miami, an African-American from Newark, a farm boy from Kansas, and a rich kid from Boston who, to his parents’ chagrin, had dropped out of college to join the Army.
It was in many ways a model of diversity, and whatever prejudices these troops brought with them quickly melted away, leaving just two questions that mattered: Can I count on my brothers to the left and right of me (in those days it was all brothers)? Is this new lieutenant competent enough to keep me safe? Increasingly, many Americans don’t think of their fellow citizens in this individual way — they don’t, that is, think of their fellow citizens first and foremost in terms of the content of their character, Martin Luther King, Jr.’s famous dream.
Losing Equality of Opportunity
Equality of opportunity is central to the American dream, which holds that someone — without regard to race, gender, ethnicity, religion, or even what country they originally came from — can be successful if they get an education, work hard, and don’t break the law. Today, the combination of increasing economic inequality and declining social mobility threatens the equality of opportunity at the core of the American dream.
Let me talk first about social mobility, because it takes a poor second place to the volume of discussion about income inequality, and it needs much more attention than it gets. It’s also the case that, while economic inequality is obviously a problem, it would be much less of a problem in a society with high social mobility.
Economists understand social mobility by looking at the association between the income of parents and the income of their children. When that association is too high, the rich stay rich and the poor stay poor. When it is very high — and it is very high today — the rich stay rich, the poor stay poor, and the middle-class — by simple numbers, the backbone of America — gets relatively poorer as well. Most Americans today expect that their children will be the first generation in America to be worse off than their parents.
Consider these facts: A child born in 1940 had a 90 percent chance of earning more than his or her parents. Today that percentage has dropped to 50 percent — a coin flip. And a child born in poverty in this country is 50 percent less likely to become well off than a similar child born in Canada. So, unless we want to rename it the Canadian dream, we Americans have some work to do.
Indeed, in an environment of low social mobility, income inequality is a very serious problem. A part of the problem is that we do not have a smooth gradation of incomes in this country, which would make it unlikely for “sects” based on income to emerge. There is, for instance, a clear drop in incomes for those who do not get college degrees today. The same is true for those who do not graduate from high school — a disaster that too often befalls young Americans who have the misfortune to be born into poverty. More broadly, we are a society of rich and poor — to the point that we really can no longer say we have a single society. We have at least two.
You can cut this in a variety of ways. There’s a lot of focus on the 1 percent versus the 99 percent, and I don’t want to repeat arguments you hear every day. Bridgewater, the firm where I work, did some research on what America looks like if you divide the country in two by income based on a 40/60 split. It paints a revealing picture of America today.
If you divide the economy by household income, you find that an average household in the top 40 percent of the economy earns four times as much as an average household in the bottom 60 percent. By wealth, it’s worse. Back in 1980, the top 40 percent were, on average, six times as rich as the bottom 60 percent. Today, it’s ten times. These numbers aren’t as stark as a 20/80 or 1/99 analysis – but that’s the whole point. Even if you “soften” the numbers by increasing the size of the upper cohort, you still get an alarming picture. Earning four times less than your neighbor puts fundamental barriers in the way of offering equality of opportunity to your children.
At the extreme, of course, increasing income inequality and declining social mobility start revolutions. Fortunately, since the founding of the republic, Americans have in general expressed their revolutionary feelings by voting for radical change rather than resorting to arms. That there has been a voting revolution in this country is clear. That’s what happens when many, anxious that they will have nothing, see people around them who have so much. They begin looking for ways to create fundamental change. In my mind, nothing better explains the rise and unexpected election of President Donald Trump.
What does real equality of opportunity look like? Once again, look no farther than the U.S. armed services. Young officers won’t become admirals and generals based on family name, personal connections, having gone to the “right” school, or skin color. It is a system based on merit, where high quality education is available for all through the service academies, ROTC, and OCS, and where if you work hard and you are capable, you have an equal opportunity to succeed.
Crisis of Confidence
I have offered examples of the way in which our military services have done a good job of remaining true to the American ideals that are most important to our future. I am not, however, suggesting that the military itself play a larger role in our democratic society than it does today. First, it is fundamental to the idea of America that the military serves society rather than leads it, and that military leaders serve at the pleasure of their duly-elected civilian masters — George Washington taught us that. It should also be obvious that, were the military ever to aspire to a more expansive role in this country, it would quickly find its immunity to the ills of American society compromised and risk muddying its clarity of purpose and undermining its competence, two things the military profession and society hold dear.
At the same time, we suffer from the absence of military veterans in public life today. As an example, about one-fifth of current members of Congress have served in the military compared to about 75 percent in the late 1970s, a decline that cannot be explained entirely by a transition to an all-volunteer force. Unfortunately, this decreasing veteran representation in Congress has gone hand in hand with its increasing polarization. A recent surge of military veterans running for Congress in the upcoming election cycle is an encouraging sign, but we have a long way to go before the voices of this generation of veterans have the impact they deserve.
That we should have more veterans in Congress or other elected office is not a radical proposal. While the founders certainly feared the power of a standing army — as Madison said, “the means of defense against foreign danger have always been the instruments of tyranny at home” — it does not seem they were worried about those who had returned to civilian life serving in government. Indeed, from the universal support for George Washington’s presidency to the late 1970s, when veterans made up 75 percent of Congress, little concern of this kind or evidence for it has been expressed. Were it otherwise, I would be less confident in recommending it.
Moreover, it is a particularly important moment for our veterans to step forward because of the fourth problem I identified, which makes solving the first three problems more difficult. And that is that the American people have lost their confidence in our major institutions — except for the military.
When the Pew Charitable Trusts asked people in 2016 how much confidence they had in various American institutions, 79 percent said they had “a great deal” or “a fair amount” of confidence in the military. The news media and business came in at about forty percent. America’s elected officials came in at a meager 27 percent. I also looked at the Gallup numbers, taking out the outliers, and they tell a similar story. The military’s score in the 1980s was in the high 50s and low 60s. After that, it climbed steadily upwards decade by decade. With the most recent number it is over 70 percent.
What about the media? A steady slide decade by decade since the 1980s from numbers in the 30s to numbers in the 20s. It gets worse. Big business was in the 20s, high and low, in the 1980s and 1990s. Since 2010, it’s been high teens to low 20s. The figures for small business are higher, but it’s still not a pretty picture.
And Congress? In the 1980s, Congress was in the 20s and 30s. In the years since 2010, it’s been in the teens and single digits. That’s right. From 2014 to 2017, it only once registered an approval rating above 10 percent.
I look at the low level of trust people have in Congress, and I wonder what is going on. I know many members of Congress and have a deep respect for their abilities, their commitment to the country, and the sacrifices they and their families make to serve. Why, then, do our citizens have such little trust in their elected officials? Why has their confidence trended steadily downward over 30 years?
When you look at what the average American worries about, including a better healthcare system, the economy, good jobs, and accessible education, the answer seems obvious. In many areas, for many years, bipartisan gridlock left most Americans no better off.
Four problems, then, have brought us to where we are today. An America whose governing institutions have failed to solve the biggest problems the country faces — that’s an enormous failure of bipartisanship. It’s an America fragmented into endlessly-multiplying sectarian groups, an America of rich and poor, with the gap between the two growing, and an America that has lost confidence in three of our four major institutions — in one case, utterly so.
How are we to find our way back to the spirit of bipartisan reason? Back to a country where equality of opportunity is not merely rhetoric but reality? Back to a country where e pluribus unum is not just a motto but an overarching principle?
The answer is virtuous leadership, and while they are not alone in their capacity or obligation to serve, our veterans are uniquely equipped at this moment to provide the kind of leadership that America desperately requires.
This idea of virtuous leadership comes straight from the founding fathers. They were human and thus flawed in their own ways, but they foresaw and contemplated the problems I have outlined. What would they make of — and what would they do about — the challenges we face today?
On the collapse of bipartisan reason: The founders were children of the Enlightenment. To them, reason was fundamental to all endeavors. The Declaration of Independence is impossible to understand without recognizing that Jefferson was setting out a reasoned argument. He itemizes the principles that make it necessary to separate from Britain. Then, introducing all the intolerable things George III was doing, he writes, “To prove this, let facts be submitted to a candid world.” He itemizes those facts. And he concludes by noting that the colonies are therefore declaring their independence.
As for equality of opportunity, it’s there in the Declaration, too:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
Those first dozen words, by the way — the proposition that all men are created equal — constitute the most powerful proposition in American history. Everything flows from it, including, of course, the abolition of slavery, badly delayed though it was.
What, finally, about sectarian politics? I think of Madison’s Federalist Number 10. What happens, he asks, when a number of citizens are united by some common impulse of passion or interest adverse to the rights of other citizens or the community? This is his definition of faction — and it’s as good a definition of today’s politics as you will find anywhere.
Madison’s solution was a republic of federated states. But he knew this wasn’t enough. He writes:
I go on this great republican principle: that the people will have virtue and intelligence to select men of virtue and intelligence … . To suppose that any form of government will secure liberty or happiness without virtue in the people is a chimerical idea.
Madison was not alone in thinking this. Adams, Washington, Franklin, and Patrick Henry all said pretty much the same thing. While deeply divided in many ways, the founding fathers reasoned out a republic founded on equality of opportunity, explicitly designed to work against factions, and guaranteed by virtuous and intelligent people who would elect virtuous and intelligent representatives. A virtuous people will elect virtuous leaders.
I am emphatically not suggesting that the American people lack virtue and intelligence. Faced with institutions and leaders who were not solving and had not solved their big problems, and a culture that was developing to their disadvantage, tens of millions of people did a perfectly understandable thing in the last election: They voted for someone who came from far outside the establishment, someone they thought and hoped might bring about much needed change.
While there are many good men and women in public service, we have allowed our standards for virtuous behavior in political life slip for too long. And it is hard to see how this is unrelated to our deeper partisanship and division. Regrettably, over the past 30 years, with some honorable exceptions, it seems undeniably clear that our political leaders have dug in into two ineffective, partisan factions and in doing so have failed us.
To state the obvious, something must change. And that’s why, now, I want to talk about what can be achieved by members of the armed forces beyond their service in the military, to include service in business, media, or public life, whether as appointed or elected officials. I want to talk about what they and you can do to make sure America is a republic of bipartisan reason, where everyone who plays by the rules and works hard can succeed, and in which we define ourselves first and foremost as individuals, and as Americans, and as nothing in between — in short, to restore the American dream to America. Due to their abilities and core values, those who have served in uniform are well-equipped to help bring about this change.
Now, if you are to set about restoring the American dream, you have your work cut out for you, as I have suggested. When the goal is receding into the mist daily, it’s good to have a guide. There is one uniquely qualified guide to show you the way: Benjamin Franklin, among the greatest of the founders, and the man who lived the American dream through his own life. Franklin is widely studied, but not often as a leader.
He professionalized Philadelphia’s system of watchmen, established an academy that became the University of Pennsylvania, found a way to issue bonds to help Massachusetts in the French-Indian wars, drafted a plan for the union of the colonies, helped draft the Declaration of Independence, concluded treaties with France — without which America would probably have lost the Revolutionary War, and signed the Paris Peace Treaty that ended it. He was also a delegate in 1787 to the convention for framing a federal constitution.
I’m not including everything Franklin did. I’m leaving out his work on electricity and his many inventions, as well as his business success. Yes, Franklin made money — lots of it, but he also dedicated himself to personal, moral improvement and to social progress in America. That is the true American dream.
Franklin was far from perfect. His reputation is sullied by the fact that he owned domestic slaves and advertised the sale of others in his newspaper. He was generous to a fault, but not to his own family. Nevertheless, he led an astonishing life, particularly for the 15th of 17 children whose father was too poor to send him to school for more than two years.
Franklin modeled his life on and attributed his success to 13 virtues: temperance, silence, order, resolution, frugality, industry, sincerity, justice, moderation, cleanliness, tranquility, chastity, and humility. This list offers a clear and reliable set of principles for those of you seeking to lead a productive and meaningful life. These virtues are hard to attain, and harder, perhaps, to maintain through life’s vicissitudes. They must be practiced every day if you are to keep them. Believe me, I know this well — both from my own successes and from a fair share of failures.
But I have come to believe there are four virtues from his list that will be central to the success of anyone who aspires to lead us into the future: tranquility, humility, sincerity, and justice.
Why are these particularly necessary to virtuous leadership? Speaking from my own experience, you cannot lead unless you can lead in times of stress and turmoil. That requires tranquility — an inner peace, and great comfort with who you are and what you stand for — and humility, a recognition of your own fallibility and limitations. Think of Abraham Lincoln, whose profound humility was matched only by what one writer calls his “tranquil indifference to personal provocation.”
But if you can’t lead without tranquility and humility, you also can’t lead virtuously without sincerity – that is, truthfulness and integrity in all your dealings, and a capacity to empathize with the plight of others, no matter who they are – and justice, a commitment to fairness in every situation.
Sincerity, justice, humility, and tranquility. As I look back on the last 30 years or so, these are the four most powerful leadership qualities I have observed in others, tried to attain for myself, and consciously sought to model whenever I found myself in a position of leadership. Certainly, they contributed significantly to whatever success I have had in leading troops in the First Gulf War; as the CEO of a public technology company during the bursting of the tech bubble in the late 1990s; as a senior Treasury official in the middle of the great financial crisis a decade later; and, now, as the co-CEO of one of the largest, most successful and most distinctive financial institutions in the world.
And you, too, can mobilize these virtues to overcome the problems we face.
Take the collapse of reason and bipartisanship in the face of falsehoods and incomplete truths. Reasoning together is the indispensable mechanism humans have developed so that we may live together successfully in large, complex, free, modern societies. After all, we cannot live together unless we can agree on how to live together — and sustained agreement comes only from reasoning together.
What virtues does it take to reason together? The humility to accept that your starting point might be wrong. The sincerity not to distort facts or leave any out, and the justice to pursue the fairest possible conclusion.
I spoke about partisan politics, the media — social and traditional — and the way we are drowning in incomplete truths. Imagine if all politicians and journalists were patient, open-minded stewards of a search for the truth. You can be that journalist. You can be hundreds of those journalists. You can be that politician. You can be hundreds of those politicians.
What about the loss of equality of opportunity? Here, it is business leaders and politicians who can have the greatest impact. Business is obviously the greatest source of opportunity for the largest number of Americans. And politicians must vote for policies that best help Americans take advantage of that opportunity through access to the education, training, and retraining that qualifies Americans for jobs; for a safety net that catches them if they fall; for a system that encourages Americans to take the risk of entrepreneurialism; and for tax policies that support these fundamentals while encouraging and supporting opportunity among those willing to work hard to make the most of it.
At an absolute minimum, we must protect all responsible Americans from genuine poverty and provide them with an education that allows them to compete. This is surely the only ground on which we may safely plant the flag of equality of opportunity.
This is easy to say and hard to do. But however difficult equality of opportunity is to achieve, it is impossible to achieve if those charged with moving us toward it come to the table without the humility, sincerity, and justice that are critical to success.
And finally, there is the rise of sectarian politics, which divides us by our differences rather than uniting us around our common values as Americans. Arguably the most powerful thing you can do here is to work on the challenge I just mentioned — equality of opportunity. As equality of opportunity rises, people become less inclined to define themselves as members of some fixed and unchanging group. Indeed, insofar as sectarian politics is a byproduct of inequality of opportunity, it will collapse as people come once again to believe they can discover a path to achieving their hopes and dreams.
But you can also work directly on this problem. The place to do so is politics, and the way to do so is by refusing to practice it. And here, too, humility, sincerity, and justice must be your watchwords. Humility will immunize you against the notion that what makes you different means you deserve more consideration than your colleagues. It follows that you will also decline to accept that those who share your sameness automatically deserve special consideration. Sincerity will oblige you to examine all the facts wherever you see sectarian politics being practiced, for inevitably sectarian politics must melt away in the face of a complete consideration of the circumstances, except where you see that some fundamental unfairness or discrimination is being practiced — at which time justice will require you to act on what sincerity has shown you must be rectified.
I have saved tranquility for last, because I think of it as a virtuous key that unlocks all the other virtues. Whether you achieve it through meditation, prayer, exercise, or a walk in the woods, I urge you to seek tranquility, that critical capacity to get above the fray — especially when the fray is your own inner turmoil, which it will one day surely be. None of us is spared that test. Tranquility allows you to imagine yourself looking down on your situation and the pressure you feel, to see the situation clearly and accurately, and to counsel yourself to remain calm and objective. Tranquility allows you to see the big picture, to discard the small in favor of the big, and to act wisely. As such, tranquility, or inner peace, is what leadership requires most of all.
Am I asking too much? I am asking a lot, certainly. It is hard to carry forward the values developed and practiced in the sequestered world of the military into the broader world. I said it would take decades. And of course, our success as a country won’t depend solely on those who have served in our military. But, if every class that graduated from our service academies — indeed, if every person who has served in uniform over the past 10 years and who will serve in the next 10 — were to take up the gauntlet I am throwing down, I have no doubt that American society would be transformed for the better.
All who serve or have served our country in uniform should remember that you possess two “secret weapons” of enormous value in this great task.
First, your ability to say, “We were soldiers once, and young,” as the famous book about Vietnam describes it, will always be a bipartisan identifier more powerful for you than Democrat or Republican, liberal or conservative — or, indeed, any other identifier — making it much more likely that you will work across the aisle. What you have been through together as members of the armed services, or what you will yet go through, probably were or will be the defining experiences of your lives in many ways. And you will come out of it with a love and respect for one another and your country that will ultimately be your deepest resource.
Your second secret weapon, as I hope my examples have shown, is that you are part of the one institution that quite clearly leads the way in overcoming the three challenges I have described. While far from perfect, America’s military offers an example of what an institution looks like that is governed by reason, equality of opportunity, and a firm opposition to sectarian politics. Trained as you are in the spirit of these three great principles, you are most powerfully prepared to lead in the military — but also in other, equally critical parts of our society.
By doing so, you will shore up the American dream and replenish American exceptionalism for decades to come.
David McCormick is Co-CEO of Bridgewater Associates and a veteran of the First Gulf War.