Maine Compass: Demand leaders with character

We need leaders who focus on their responsibilities, not themselves.

Originally published in the Kennebec Journal, July 4, 2017

By Hyde School Founder Joseph Gauld

I believe that every patriot wants America to be great. But the larger question that hovers over us today is: Just what defines America for us?

Our forefathers in 1776 defined it as a set of beliefs. In 1863, Abraham Lincoln’s famous Gettysburg Address reaffirmed that our Civil War tested whether “any nation so conceived … can long endure.”

In 1941, I was 14 when Pearl Harbor was bombed by the Japanese. The incredible resolve I saw in Americans was centered not on a deep threat to our survival, but on the threat to everything we believed in and had worked hard to establish.

Later, in my minor role in bringing our ships back from Japan back home, I deeply appreciated the sacrifice the older GIs had made to allow us to continue to live lives of meaning and honor.

My high school sweetheart, who became my wife, lost her two brothers and her father in the war. So the concept of sacrifice to protect and honor our beliefs took on a special meaning in our home.

Last year, at 89, I finally felt ready to travel to France to visit D-Day’s Omaha Beach and Normandy American Cemetery as symbolic of what World War II GIs sacrificed for all of us today.

I was immensely reassured by the beauty and extensive care of the cemetery, and by the sharp daily honoring ceremonies. Even more moving were the love and respect the French have for these heroes, who led the effort to give them back the country they had lost.

I walked around, touching the white gravestones, noting those from Maine.

Then I quietly thanked them for the opportunity they had given to my life, rich not only in helping my wife raise three wonderful children, who in turn developed wonderful families each with three children, but also for a fulfilling life teaching and helping families prepare their children for life.

When I finished Bowdoin, I had blindly set out to become rich and famous. But my uncertain motivation made me face that I was called to teach, which humiliated me: “Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach.” Now I deeply thanked these heroes for helping me live a very meaningful life of purpose, not of ego.

D-Day was 73 years ago. We continue to have brave young people willing to risk their lives for us. But these wars — in Korea, Vietnam, the Middle East and Afghanistan — are not the same deep threat to our basic beliefs that World War II was; they represent more a threat to our international interests.

So how do we inspire youth and individuals today to live lives based on purpose and not on ego?

As the founder of a network of schools emphasizing the development of unique potential and character, I believe this deeper focus helps individuals transcend their self-interest to emphasize more on their larger and more satisfying purpose of contributing to the welfare of others and society.

In my career, I have been privileged to help develop and/or meet and work with some very accomplished leaders. What seems to define their excellence, beyond their vision and dedication, is their character, and in particular, their integrity — like telling it like it is and not cutting corners.

Our Founding Fathers envisioned this kind of leader for America. They wanted our schools to emphasize character.

Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf of Desert Storm fame once said, “Leadership is a potent combination of strategy and character. But if you must be without one, be without the strategy.”

The general is telling us to pay less attention to what programs a candidate supports, and more attention to his or her character.

Character plays the major role in successful organizations. If we citizens demand leaders with character, we will get leaders whose first priority is their responsibilities, not themselves.

That will make America great.