The 800 Pound Gorilla in the Middle of the GOP Debate: Leadership with Integrity

Mark Goulston
4 min readAug 22, 2023

The stage is set, the lights shine, and the candidates begin their verbal dance. In the midst of this political theater, there’s an 800 pound gorilla many might not recognize. It’s not the shadow of Donald Trump, be he present or absent, nor is it the strategy of candidates trying to decide between sparring with him or their peers. It’s an emblem representing the American people’s innermost yearning, their quiet but desperate plea for a leader they can, with their whole hearts, trust, have confidence in, respect, admire, believe in and be proud of. In short, the American people yearn for a leader with integrity

When looking back at history, Americans found faith in figures such as Ronald Reagan, John F. Kennedy, and FDR. These leaders were more than just politicians — they were torchbearers, emblematic of what was good and possible in our nation. They weren’t flawless; no leader is. But they touched a chord deep in the American psyche. They inspired trust, confidence, respect, and a kind of faith that’s been increasingly elusive.

In the quagmire of today’s politics, where the game often centers around sound bites, Twitter feuds, and chasing viral moments, that deeper connection is lost. But it’s not out of reach.

To become this torchbearer, a candidate doesn’t need to be the most charismatic, the loudest, or even the most media-savvy. Instead, they must embody the following values:

Integrity — It’s a word often bandied about, but rarely internalized. Integrity is not just about avoiding blatant lies; it’s about a deep congruence between one’s words and actions. When a leader speaks, the people should not have to second-guess the truth of their words. This kind of credibility is earned over time and can be lost in an instant.

Track Record — A sleek campaign promise can ignite hope, but what’s more telling is a candidate’s history. Have they delivered on past promises? Have they showcased an ability to navigate the complex world of politics and governance to effect real, tangible change? The past, in many ways, can be an indicator of the future.

Wisdom & Character — True leadership demands more than just knowledge. It requires wisdom to discern what truly matters. It asks for a character strong enough to defend those principles, even when the world seems against them. It’s about choosing the harder right over the easier wrong.

Courage — As the saying goes, courage is not the absence of fear, but the ability to act despite it. A true leader will face countless pressures, from lobbyists, from their party, from global leaders. Their mettle is tested not when times are easy, but when they’re hard. The American people need a leader who won’t waver when the storms come.

Moral Compass — We finally need a leader who we never come up empty about, when our child asks us such questions, “Why did the President say or do X? Isn’t that wrong and doesn’t that make him a bad person? Why do you and other people let such a bad person become President?” As we view Donald Trump, who has failed on all of the above, perhaps this is his greatest failing because what do we say to our child who wants to trust and believe in us if they ask us these questions?

In the din of the current GOP debate, amidst the strategies, alliances, and postures, this symbolic gorilla stands still and patient. It waits for someone to recognize it, to understand the profound hunger of the American people. It’s not about party. It’s not about red states or blue states. It’s about finding a leader that embodies the very best of what we, as a nation, hope to be.

Candidates might win votes by pandering to the base or launching scathing attacks on rivals, but those victories are short-lived. To win the heart of America requires a deeper commitment. It demands an unwavering dedication to the ideals that the gorilla in the room represents.

As we move towards November 2024, let the message be clear: The American people are watching, waiting, and hoping. Not for the flashiest campaign or the most viral moment, but for a candidate who reminds us of our nation’s greatness and who we can and should be, who can inspire pride without inciting folly.

In the end, the winner won’t just be decided by debates, ads, or strategies. It will be decided by which candidate can see that gorilla, acknowledge it, and give it the respect it deserves. For that “hidden in plain sight” presence, that embodiment of the American spirit, holds the future of the nation in its formidable grasp.

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Mark Goulston

Dr. Goulston is the world's #1 listening coach and author of "Just Listen" which became the top book on listening in the world