Ethical Leadership in the 21st Century

H. Norman Schwarzkopf
Former Commander, U.S. Central Command

General H. Norman Schwarzkopf served two combat tours in Vietnam and was task force deputy commander during the Grenada student rescue operation. He is best known, however, for his service during the Gulf War as commander-in-chief of the U.S. Central Command and commander of Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm. In 1991, he retired from the military and began work on his bestselling autobiography, It Doesn’t Take a Hero. He serves on the board of governors of the Nature Conservancy and is the national spokesman for the Recovery of the Grizzly Bear. Additionally, he is chairman of the STAR BRIGHT Capital Campaign for pediatric pain reduction research; the co-founder of the Boggy Creek Gang, a camp for children with chronic illness; the national spokesman for prostate cancer awareness; one of the organizers of the Miami Project for the Cure of Paralysis; a trustee of the University of Richmond; and a board director of a number of global business concerns. He earned his B.S. from the United States Military Academy at West Point in 1956 and his M.S. in Missile Engineering from the University of Southern California in 1964.

In these excerpts from his keynote address at the Shavano Institute for National Leadership fifteenth anniversary program, retired U.S. Army General H. Norman Schwarzkopf identifies character as the most important attribute of successful leaders. Leaders not only take charge, but they “do the right thing” and hold themselves to a higher set of standards and values.

The main ingredient of good leadership is good character. This is because leadership involves conduct, and conduct is determined by values. You may call these values by many names. “Ethics,” “morality,” and “integrity” come to mind. But this much is clear: Values are what make us who we are.

You and I—every one of us—are walking, talking repositories of values that express our ideas about the world, about right and wrong, and about the nature of our existence.

In the aftermath of the last two presidential elections, many media experts claim that “character is no longer an issue.” But Americans do want their leaders to exhibit good character. The trouble is, they feel that what they want and what they will probably end up with are two very different things. They have been disillusioned by political scandals, bureaucracy, and overregulation.

In a recent national poll, 75 percent of all respondents said it was okay for them to lie to their leaders and that they indeed lie to their leaders regularly. Why? Because their leaders are lying to them.

Without good character, we live in a frightening amoral world.

The True Rewards

The true rewards of leadership come from striving to live up to a higher moral standard, from trying to do the right thing. Some people get into the “leadership game” for the next tangible reward—the next promotion, the next pay raise, the next headline. But these individuals are inevitably doomed to disappointment. At the end of the day, they cannot point to these things and say that they are the stuff of which genuine happiness and pride are made.

Good leaders sometimes—in fact, quite often—lose in the material world. They go right ahead anyway, knowing that they are going to lose. Are they tilting at windmills? Do they have a “can’t do” instead of a “can do” attitude? Of course not. They are committed to defending the right values. And the right values are seldom safe, easy, or advantageous.

Excerpts from It Doesn’t Take a Hero (Bantam Books, 1992):

“It doesn’t take a hero to order men into battle. It takes a hero to be one of those men who goes into battle.”
—H. Norman Schwarzkopf


To this day it’s hard to explain the impact West Point had on me. Somehow, during the four years I spent in that idealized military world, a new system of values came alive in my mind. When I began as a plebe, “Duty, Honor, Country” was just a motto I’d heard from Pop. I loved my country, of course, and I knew how to tell right from wrong, but my conscience was still largely unformed. By the time I left, those values had become my fixed stars.


All my life I’d trained to be an infantry officer and to fight for the cause of freedom. Sure, I was hoping for combat experience, but I wasn’t thinking about advancing my career. It was difficult for me to put this into words, but Ben Franklin in Paris, a hit Broadway musical that I saw right after volunteering for Vietnam, captured my feelings exactly. Franklin travels to France to enlist support for the American Revolution. But he learns that if he accepts an offer to go to London under safe conduct, he may be seized and executed anyway. The play ends with Franklin pondering what to do, and trying to imagine Americans two hundred years hence:

I wonder how I’d find them then—those Americans to whom the name American will not be new. Will they love liberty, being given it outright in the crib for nothing? Will they know that if you are not free, you are, sir, lost without hope, and will they who reaped that harvest of ideas be willing to strive to preserve what we so willingly strove to plant? That all men are created equal! And are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights.

He pauses and then says:

And would they die for it? That’s the question one finally has to ask oneself. Would I die for it! And the answer one has to say is—yes, sir, I would!


Wearing my uniform with all my ribbons and my Vietnamese airborne beret, I kept waiting for the driver to make a big fuss and exclaim, “Hey! You’re just back from Vietnam, aren’t you!” Nothing. So I fed him hints like, “Gee, I haven’t seen Newark for awhile.” But he dropped me at my mother’s place with scarcely a word.

She had moved to a cookie-cutter apartment in a high-rise building after Pop died—a place I didn’t think of as home. She cried and hugged me at her door and over the next few days proceeded to stuff me with food as though I’d just been released from a POW camp. I was pretty disoriented. I couldn’t think about anything but Vietnam. The war was all over the newspapers, but people seemed not to care. Even when Mom introduced me to a few of her friends, they only said things like, “Well, I guess now you’ll be able to get on with your life.” No one wanted to know about Vietnam: The public wasn’t caught up in the war, not at all like the spirit I remembered from my boyhood, during World War II. After two days I wanted to run through the streets yelling, “Hey! In Vietnam people are dying! Americans are dying! How can you act like nothing is happening?”


From the time I was twelve years old until I retired at the age of fifty-seven, the Army was my life. I loved commanding soldiers and being around people who had made a serious commitment to serve their country. I was lucky to be given exciting assignments in places ranging from southern California to West Berlin. But while I was good at soldiering and was promoted rapidly, I wasn’t always happy with the Army: Often I hated what I saw going on around me and came close to resigning not once but several times. When I received my commission as a second lieutenant, the Army was suffering from the aftereffects of the Korean War; in many ways it was ethically and morally bankrupt, which led eventually to the debacle in Vietnam. By the end of my second tour in Vietnam, the Army had not only reached its nadir but also lost the confidence of the American people. I agonized over the question of whether to stay in—and decided I would, in the hope of someday getting a chance to help fix what I thought was wrong. As I rose to senior rank over the years, I saw the Army transform itself into a force that Americans could be proud of. The units I commanded during Desert Storm were the product of twenty years of reform, and soldier for soldier, officer for officer, we had the best-trained, best-equipped army in the world.


…the phone rang. It was Colin Powell, who said matter- of-factly, “You were right. They’ve crossed the border.”

I hurried to the command center still wearing my warm-up suit. The crisis action team officers briefed me on the initial intelligence reports, which indicated that the main Iraqi attack had bypassed the Rumaila oil field and struck deep into Kuwait—Saddam seemed to be going further than I’d expected. Then, for a couple of hours, no news. We waited to hear from our securityassistance team in Kuwait or from Major Feeley. Finally, a little after 9:00 p.m.—4:00 a.m. Kuwait time—Feeley called. He’d awakened in his hotel room to the sound of distant explosions and ran across the street to the American embassy, where Central Command kept a satellite radio that could link directly with Tampa. Now he was on the line with General Leide, who relayed his report: “The Iraqis are in downtown Kuwait City.”


Something basic had changed since Vietnam, when we had drafted young Americans, ordered them to fight, and then blamed them for the war when they came home. We had matured as a nation to the point where we could separate the political debate from our concern for the safety of the men and women who were being sent off to war.

Almost every general in Desert Shield had fought in Vietnam and we all remembered feeling abandoned by our countrymen. So for me and the other Vietnam vets, the mail that reached us in Saudi Arabia had an impact that was hard to put into words. One letter in particular brought that home to me: It was from my sister Ruth. I’d never gotten over her fierce opposition to the Vietnam War and we hadn’t seen each other or even talked to each other much since our mother’s funeral fifteen years before. The letter ended, “Please forgive me for not writing you all those years in Vietnam.” I read it at my desk in the Ministry of Defense building and burst into tears.


When we reached Kuwait City, I immediately got on my plane and took off for Riyadh. I knew my headquarters was about to turn into an administrative meat grinder. We had to start moving forces and equipment home—a happy but gigantic and complicated task. We had to bring Kuwait City back to life, which meant repairing and turning on the water supply, electrical power grid, and telephones, helping the police maintain order, searching for booby traps and clearing the beaches of mines, reopening the harbor, and a thousand other tasks. And until the U.N. approved a cease-fire agreement that would permit us to end our occupation, we had to serve as the government of southern Iraq—maintaining order, providing basic services, and caring for the thousands of refugees fleeing from upheavals in the north. Finally, we had to help the Red Cross get what would turn out to be eighty thousand Iraqi prisoners out of Saudi Arabia as quickly as possible.

But all of that could wait until the plane landed. For the first time, I had a sense, not of triumph, not of glory, but of relief. I looked down at the Kuwaiti sky still darkened with the stain of war, and at the unspoiled Saudi sky ahead, and told myself again and again, “It really is over.”