Scholars and practitioners debate what makes a good leader, whether leaders are born or made, and what virtues a leader should possess. What no one has done is formulate a satisfactory definition of what leadership is.
I prefer the older way of examining these questions — the method proffered by the Greek historian Plutarch two millennia ago. Among his many works, Plutarch compiled a series of capsule biographies of famous Greeks and Romans. By studying and comparing the lives of eminent figures of the past, readers could glimpse the traits they should emulate or shun to live well.
A famous American, Senator Daniel Inouye of Hawaii, shuffled off his mortal coil this week. Inouye’s life is worthy of a Plutarch. Three things stand out for me. First, he displayed valor in combat during World War II. He served in the European theater after enlisting in the U.S. Army’s 442d Regimental Combat Team, a predominantly Japanese-American unit. He was awarded the Medal of Honor for clearing three German machine-gun positions near San Terenzo, Italy, and for doing so while suffering life-threatening gunshot wounds.
Second, he took an avid interest in naval and military affairs once elected to Congress. The roster of lawmakers with military experience and expertise dwindles further with his passing, impoverishing the legislature’s oversight function.
And finally, Senator Inouye fearlessly championed American purposes and power in the Asia-Pacific, where his native Hawaii remains the strategic lynchpin it has been for over a century. I met the senator only once, last year, at a Washington Navy Yard event celebrating Naval War College graduation. He delivered a refreshingly tough-minded speech portraying China’s confrontational actions toward its neighbors as an effort to expose weaknesses in the U.S.-led alliance system.
This is a test the United States must pass. Inouye warned Americans to gird themselves for strategic competition with China. That sort of candor befits a soldier, Medal of Honor recipient, and elder statesman.
Plutarch would approve. R.I.P.