Like many Americans, I was inspired by the life of John McCain. Given the amount of tributes that have poured in after his death from diverse voices and former rivals, it’s clear I’m not alone.

Senator McCain’s first run for president was what first got me interested in politics. I found his style, “straight talk,” and maverick streak refreshing, especially since so many politicians seem fake. You couldn’t help but admire him because he repeatedly decided to play the long game: he often punted short-term talking points and accolades for long-term impact. As a result, he earned the respect of millions and will be remembered for a long time.

Long Game: Lessons Learned from John McCain

It’s easy to say we want to play for long-term impact, but we know it’s much harder actually to do. It’s why Senator McCain’s life stands out. He often seemed to operate by a different set of principles than other leaders. If we look carefully, we can glean from his life some important lessons for how to play the long game and create lasting impact.

Lesson #1: Pain Doesn’t Have to Lead to Bitterness – It Can Inspire Service

In 1967, John McCain’s plane was shot down during a mission in the Vietnam War. For the next 5 ½ years he was a prisoner of war, enduring torture and solitary confinement in the infamous “Hanoi Hilton.” Because he was the son of a Navy Admiral, McCain was offered early release – a reprieve I would have been hard-pressed not to take. But, knowing it would be a violation of the Navy Code of Conduct and a discouragement to his fellow POWs, McCain refused release at great cost to his health. He fought through the immediate pain in order to make a lasting impact.

For most of us, this type of experience would create bitterness and resentment for the rest of our lives. But not John McCain. He used it as fuel for decades of public service, during which he stood up for the military, argued against torture, and even helped normalize relations with Vietnam.

His example highlights a choice we all have: will our pains, hurts, and difficulties pull us down toward bitterness (which it can do easily) or will they propel us to make a difference. And our past pain can help us make a huge impact, especially in the lives of those hurting in a similar way today.

Lesson #2: Criticism Shouldn’t Stop Conviction

Leaders will face criticism. John McCain certainly did. Anytime you state an opinion or make a decision there are plenty of people who will disagree with it or think how they would have handled it differently.

Leaders will face criticism. Good leaders know when to listen and change, and when it’s time to endure and stand on principle.

A notable example in Senator McCain’s life happened with the recent health care debate. He torpedoed an attempt to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act with one simple gesture: a now-famous thumbs down vote in the face of the Senate Majority Leader. Republicans were furious. But, days earlier, McCain had shared his conviction that the Senate return to normal order, where bills were debated and amendments discussed in public and with the appropriate amount of time. Nothing had been normal about the health care debate, so McCain ultimately objected and defied his party. He was heavily criticized for this decision (he still is, even after his death). However, the criticism didn’t stop him or change his view; it only deepened his conviction that something was very wrong in the Senate.

Anyone playing the long game knows they’ll face short-term criticism. Good leaders know when to listen and change, and when it’s time to endure and stand on principle.

Lesson #3: Humans Make Mistakes – Admitting Them Makes Us Relatable

One of McCain’s biggest regrets came in 1999 when he was running for president during the South Carolina primary. The state’s controversial flying of the Confederate flag over the capital became an issue in the election. Instead of holding to his previously stated belief that the flag was a symbol of racism and slavery, he succumbed to political pressure and issued a bland statement that said he could “understand both sides” of the argument. Later on, he would come to regret not saying what he really believed: that the flag should be permanently removed.

McCain would later recall, “I had not just been dishonest. I had been a coward, and I had severed my own interests from my country’s. That was what made the lie unforgivable. All my heroes, fictional and real, would have been ashamed of me.”

While clearly disappointed in himself, he admitted his mistake. Owning our blunders is key to playing the long game. In the short term, it doesn’t feel good. In the long term, it shows we are human and makes us relatable. I’d much rather follow a leader who admits mistakes than one who blame shifts, obfuscates, or covers up.

Lesson #4: Disagreements Don’t Have to Turn Personal

In his reflection on the life of John McCain, columnist Timothy Stanley pointed out the significance that Hillary Clinton and McCain once played a drinking contest with vodka during a foreign congressional tour.

“That image sums up the humanity and character of the late Senator McCain, who will be mourned deeply on both sides of the political aisle,” writes Stanley. “He embodied a more moderate brand of conservatism – one that could separate politics and friendship – that now feels distant and very much missed.”

That statement tells us a lot about the long game. McCain is being mourned deeply by both sides of the aisle (a rarity in today’s political climate) because disagreements didn’t mean he had to demonize people. He became friends with people he passionately disagreed with politically and professionally.

We live in a society where everyone’s vying for 15 minutes of fame. People who demonize, disrespect, misrepresent, and claim to have everything figured out are all over the place because that’s what makes headlines. It’s easy to live that way – you don’t have to think a ton, sacrifice much, figure out where to compromise and when to stand firm, and never admit a mistake. But, those people also tend to come and go just as fast. They aren’t remembered, at least not in the way John McCain is being remembered today. They certainly aren’t respected like him.

I want to play the long game. I won’t do it perfectly, but neither did John McCain. But, I’m glad I have leaders like him who modeled what it’s like to live bigger. We need more people like him, and he’ll be missed.

Photo by Matt Howard on Unsplash
Inspired by the life of Senator John McCain, Eric Torrence shares some lessons he's learned about focusing on the long game.