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BOOK REVIEW: ‘The Leader’s Code’

- - Thursday, May 2, 2013

THE LEADER'S CODE: MISSION, CHARACTER, SERVICE, AND GETTING THE JOB DONE
By Donovan Campbell
Random House, $27, 226 pages

Donovan Campbell, a management and technology consultant and author of "Joker One: A Marine Platoon's Story of Courage, Leadership, and Brotherhood," served three combat deployments as a decorated Marine Corps officer in Iraq and Afghanistan. In "The Leader's Code," he draws extensively on his experiences and lessons learned as a Marine to describe a model for the sort of leadership currently in short supply.

"America suffers from a leadership crisis," writes Mr. Campbell. Our political and business leaders have lost credibility, with many of them "largely viewed as greedy, selfish, hypocritical, criminal, shortsighted, incompetent or all of the above." With a widespread destruction of trust in leadership has come a lack of faith in many or our basic institutions.

"However, there is one national institution that is widely respected for its virtue and effectiveness." That institution "teaches a strong, clear leadership model" based on "well-defined virtues — personal character traits — and it teaches those virtues to every one of its leaders through rigorous training ... immediately upon entrance."

That institution, writes Mr. Campbell, citing a recent poll showing a 70 percent approval rating, is perhaps the only one left in America that we uniformly trust — the United States military.

Mr. Campbell doesn't propose to restructure American institutions on the military model. But he does advocate cultivating the six common virtues upon which, he believes, all successful character-based leadership rests: humility, excellence, kindness, discipline, courage and wisdom.

As Mr. Campbell goes on to explore the nature of these virtues and their manifestations in detail, some of us may have a few reservations about their universal applicability. This reviewer, for instance, has worked for several men who could never be accused of humility or kindness. Nor would they want to be. Nevertheless, they were strong and effective leaders.

In fact, perhaps the only person I ever worked for who embodied and embraced all those qualities and whose example inspired others was a woman, Priscilla Buckley, managing editor of National Review.

Whatever the gender, these are the virtues underlying what Mr. Campbell calls the "servant-leadership" model, which the military uses to teach "that leaders exist to serve a mission first, their teams second and themselves a distant third." Servant-leaders, he writes, ask their teams to do nothing they wouldn't do themselves. "They lead by example, asking that others observe their actions, not their words."

In the Marine Corps, Mr. Campbell writes, this means that lieutenants "shout 'follow me' as they run toward gunfire at the head of their men; that a captain eat only after every one of [his 200] Marines have been served (which often means not eating at all); that a sergeant major put off sleep after three days without it so that [he] can make sure that everyone under [his] charge has a place to sleep."

That, in effect, is the essence of what Mr. Campbell calls "The Leader's Code" — accomplish a worthy mission; pursue character above all else; and serve others before serving yourself. It's a deceptively simple prescription for curing our society's crisis of trust, but as Mr. Campbell points out, there's no shortcut to building character. It can be the work of a lifetime.

Nor should character-building be thought of only as the work of politicians, military leaders or businessmen. All of us, no matter how modest our lives, are looked up to by someone for guidance and example. We owe it to them and to ourselves to provide it.

"I have been out of the military for some time now," writes Mr. Campbell, "and I have realized that the servant-leader model and the character qualities underpinning it are powerful and relevant, no matter who you are leading or where you are leading them. I believe with all my heart that in a world starving for leadership, the servant-leadership model can help strengthen families, neighborhoods, business, politics and, ultimately, the broader global community."

John R. Coyne Jr., a former White House speechwriter, is co-author of "Strictly Right: William F. Buckley Jr. and the American Conservative Movement" (Wiley).