Judging our candidates as leaders

Editor’s Note: Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling, former Commander of US Army Europe and 7th Army, served for more than 37 years and spent more than three years in combat. He is a CNN military analyst and the author of “Growing Physician Leaders.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.

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Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says candidates should be carefully evaluated on character, presence and intellect

Hertling: Do we as a nation trust this leader to do the right thing, for all people, in the toughest of situations?

A real leader's presence shows confidence, but does not reflect arrogance, hubris or cockiness, he says

CNN  — 

As a military analyst, I’ve often been asked to comment on various candidates – Democrats and Republicans – when they state their view on a particular national security or military affairs issue.

Mark Hertling

I’ve attempted to remain apolitical when discussing each issue from a martial viewpoint, commenting on what works or doesn’t work on the battlefield, or how elements of a strategy I’ve seen applied with our allies, partners, or foes affect a desired outcome. My goal is always to analyze the issue while refraining from judging the personality of the candidate. Admittedly, I have sometimes failed in the latter.

That happens because while performing those duties for CNN, I am also evaluating the leadership abilities of the candidates based on the military criteria of leadership I’ve learned during my four-decade career wearing our country’s cloth. Truthfully, the measures those in uniform apply aren’t that complicated. They center on the term “attributes,” and are measured by the three words: “Be-Know-Do.”

The leader’s character, presence and intellect describe the “being” and “knowing” element of attributes.

The right stuff

Character describes who the candidates are: the values they hold dear, the self-discipline they apply and the service ethos that guides their performance. Have they been imbued with the right stuff, will they act when necessary, and are they selfless or self-serving?

Character will determine how leaders view and understand others, and how they apply their moral principles to decision making when tackling very complex problems. As importantly, character involves how a leader views serving the citizens of our nation.

The factor of character contributes to leaders doing the right thing – not what is popular or will generate the most applause or highest numbers in the polls. Character provides the leader with the courage and self-discipline to decide what is appropriate for all the citizens of our country when there are tough problems or difficult times.

The key question one should ask: Do we as a nation trust this leader to do the right thing, for all people, in the toughest of situations?

Confidence, not arrogance

The leader’s presence is apparent in actions, words and manner. A real leader’s presence shows confidence, but does not reflect arrogance, hubris or cockiness.

Presence directly reflects energy, passion and – not surprisingly – the moral, intellectual and physical fitness required in a commander in chief. Presence generates a positive perception from supporters. More important, it garners support and generates respect – not fear – from foes and sworn enemies.

Our president reflects our national values and messages our nation’s beliefs: how our citizens and the citizens of the world view him or her is critically important to achieving national objectives.


The leader’s intellect is based on a profound understanding of critical issues. Truly great leaders realize there are some things they just don’t know. Because of this, strategic leaders practice sound judgment in choosing advisers and subject-matter experts who provide insight, depth and information. Good leaders access facts and have the ability to generate solutions to daily challenges.

Great presidents, continuously faced with complex national and global challenges, need to be able to build strong teams to assist them in generating sound strategies, and thus require phenomenal interpersonal skills.

When great leaders make mistakes, as all leaders will, they own it. They take responsibility for fixing it. It’s easy to see which leaders will do that just by looking at their character, their presence, and their exhibition of intellect.

There are over 60,000 veterans in the state of South Carolina. The Army, Air Force, Marines and Navy each have a large contingent of serving military and retirees in the Palmetto State.

Most who wear the uniform know an ideal leader must possess a strong intellect, a physical and emotional presence, a developed professional competence, and a refined moral character. All of those attributes generate trust, between the leader and the led…between a president and the citizens.

Truth be known, as I comment on national security or military affairs I’m also constantly evaluating the candidates on their character, their presence, and their intellect. In my view, there are candidates who are blessed, and some who are lacking.

As a nation, we have just a few short months to determine who will be our 45th president, so I’m hoping others join me in evaluating that leader with the most potential in these three critical areas.

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