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'What You Fight for Is the Real Test': 8 Quotes on Life and Leadership From Sen. John McCain

The Arizona senator and Republican presidential candidate died Saturday. Here are some of his most enduring words of wisdom for leaders.
'What You Fight for Is the Real Test': 8 Quotes on Life and Leadership From Sen. John McCain
Image credit: NBC | Getty Images
John McCain
Entrepreneur Staff
Associate Editor
4 min read

On Oct. 23, 2017, a television host asked Sen. John McCain how he’d like to be remembered. McCain, clad in a dark purple tie, answered simply. “He served his country,” he said. “And he’s proud of his family.”

Following McCain’s passing on Saturday, people around the world are remembering him just so. He had battled brain cancer for over a year, and he passed away in Phoenix, Ariz., surrounded by family. McCain was a longtime senator, presidential candidate, prisoner of war and naval pilot.

Here are some of his most enduring words of wisdom for leaders.

On character:

“It is your character, and your character alone, that will make your life happy or unhappy. That is all that really passes for destiny. And you choose it. No one else can give it to you or deny it to you. No rival can steal it from you. And no friend can give it to you. Others can encourage you to make the right choices or discourage you. But you choose.” (From his book Character Is Destiny, 2005)

On long-term thinking:

“‘Steady strain, buddy, steady strain,’ we cautioned each other whenever we began to take a short view of our lives. It was best to take the long view.” (From his memoir, 1999)

On beliefs:

“I don’t mind a good fight. For reasons known only to God, I’ve had quite a few tough ones in my life. But I learned an important lesson along the way: In the end, it matters less that you can fight. What you fight for is the real test.” (From his acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention in St. Paul, 2008)

On glory:

“I have learned the truth: There are greater pursuits than self-seeking. Glory is not a conceit. It is not a decoration for valor. It is not a prize for being the most clever, the strongest or the boldest. Glory belongs to the act of being constant to something greater than yourself, to a cause, to your principles, to the people on whom you rely and who rely on you in return. No misfortune, no injury, no humiliation can destroy it.” (From his memoir, 1999)

On ideals:

“We will not thrive in a world where our leadership and ideals are absent. We wouldn’t deserve to.” (From his speech at the annual Liberty Medal ceremony in Philadelphia, 2017)

On love and honor:

“‘All that’s beautiful drifts away / Like the waters,’ lament Yeats’s old men. Except, I discovered, love and honor. If you valued them and held them strongly, love and honor would endure undiminished by the passing of time and the most determined assault on your dignity.” (From his memoir, 1999)

On enduring values:

“Many good people have suffered for their principles. Some have died for them. But however cruel their end, they were surely comforted by the knowledge that they had made the right choice and they had had the character to live a good life. Whether anyone knew how great their courage had been would not matter as much to them as the knowledge that they had chosen well, that their cause had been just and their character worthy of its demands. They did not submit to an inevitable destiny. They believed their values were the power that directs our lives and lights the world in which we burn our little candle, before our work is done and we take our rest.” (From his book Character Is Destiny, 2005)

On his own leadership:

“I’ve had the good fortune to spend 60 years in service to this wondrous land. It has not been perfect service, to be sure, and there were probably times when the country might have benefited from a little less of my help. But I’ve tried to deserve the privilege as best I can, and I’ve been repaid a thousand times over with adventures, with good company and with the satisfaction of serving something more important than myself -- of being a bit player in the extraordinary story of America. And I am so very grateful.” (From his speech at the annual Liberty Medal ceremony in Philadelphia, 2017)

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