Leadership Advice From Al Pacino

In my 21 years of life, I’ve come to accept a certain saying as truth—when life gives you Al Pacino, listen closely for some quality advice.

Yes, I’m referring to the former Scarface, Michael Corleone playing Al Pacino. And no, I’m not endorsing Cuban drug peddlers and mafia bosses as role models.

Yet stumbling my way through channels full of bad television late Friday night, I came across one of my all-time favorite movie scenes: Pacino’s impassioned monologue in the Academy Award-winning Scent of a Woman. Playing the part of a blind, alcoholic, retired Army colonel disillusioned with the outcome of his own life, Pacino stands up to defend the honor of his young assistant—a prep school student who is about to take the fall for his peers’ misconduct.

Several minutes of Pacino’s defense of the student coalesce around these golden lines: “He won’t sell anybody out to buy his future. And that, my friends, is called integrity. That’s called courage.

“Now that’s the stuff that leaders should be made of.”

While I’m sure our elected officials and the current administration in Washington are busy pandering to party lines and defending majorities in November, they ought to give Pacino’s monologue a listen.

Each day, we bear witness to growing atrocities in Iraq, as ISIS militants continue a twisted crusade against innocent civilians. The group’s barbaric terror tactics, apocalyptic rhetoric, and threats to the West are enough to make stomachs turn, as hard fought gains for freedom in Iraq erode with the passing of each day. Amidst this chaos, it is easy to overlook Vladimir Putin’s aggression toward Ukraine, which has brought a widespread tension to the European continent unseen since the late Cold War Era.

And yet any sense of urgency in Washington is drowned out by the deafening silence of indecision.

Don’t get me wrong—there is never a good time for brash decision-making in foreign policy, but there seems to be a sentiment amongst American leadership that ignoring a problem long enough will chase it away. Seek bipartisan support of a clear strategy in Iraq? Nah, let’s wait until midterm elections are over. Own up to one’s record (or lack thereof) of containing Putin’s international ambitions during your tenure as Secretary of State? Eh, submitting an op-ed to the Wall Street Journal is a lot more convenient. Why should I dirty my hands when 2016 is right around the corner?

Even the designers of American democracy weren’t naive enough to believe that their own system could depend on the selflessness and integrity of primarily “unenlightened” statesmen. Ambition has always been meant to counteract ambition—officials run to win, while checks and balances push them toward serving the public’s best interests.

Yet there are times when statesmen and stateswomen must push aside, or even “sell,” their own futures to confront the toughest of situations. These are times when they must remember that democratic politics is fundamentally a popularity contest, but leadership is not.

Featured Image courtesy of Hannah Yoon/AP Photo