Bradley Manning: Nobel Prize-Worthy Leader or Failed Follower?

As we wait for Bradley Manning’s sentencing, now that we know the death penalty is off the table with the one-count acquittal for “aiding the enemy,” there’s a lot of buzz about the morality of the information he released. One author praises Manning and says he deserves the Nobel Peace Prize; another says he has redefined the word, “traitor.”

When we think about leadership, we often turn to paradoxical oppositions like this, and choose a side. But there’s no “side” in this controversial case that opposes two of our core moral values (public duty exercised through freedom of speech and loyalty demonstrated by maintaining wartime secrecy).

Aljazeera’s website quotes two oppositional viewpoints that perfectly frame this polarized praise/attack debate. You can find many more, but their reporter demonstrated it most concisely…


Delphine Halgand, the US director for Reporters Without Borders, says: “You can even ask yourself: Is it a worse crime to commit such killings or to reveal this information to the public? And according to the verdict it seems that it is worse to reveal information to the public than to commit such crimes.”




JD Gordon, former US defense department spokesman, says: “He acted as a spy and as a traitor, a whistle-blower is somebody that contacts their supervisors within their own organisations, if that doesn’t work, they can contact a member of Congress, but they don’t just go to Wikileaks or another organisation and release something like 700,000 documents and videos … ”

(See my article about whistleblowers to put these comments into historical context…)

But Manning, who was held for three years without trial,  represents far more than the simple opposition of moral voice/immoral enemy. Along with Edward Snowden and many more, he is part of a group that Forbes commentator Tom Watson provocatively calls another term: pioneers.

Watson writes: “So much of the question about them boils down to a lame cultural A/B test. Each man is either a hero or a traitor. There’s no in between – which runs counter to every experience I ever had as a reporter with a source who handed me documents that I wasn’t supposed to have. Bradley Manning: Traitor or Hero, asks the Daily Beast. And the usually canny pollsters at Quinnipiac actually commissioned a poll that demanded a choice on Snowden – whistle-blower or traitor – because, well, that’s the attention span and depth most people give the story. Whistle-blower, hero, traitor – all loaded words.

So let’s try on another: how about “pioneers?”

Talk about loaded words — pioneer is one of the deepest triggers for our American values of independence, exploration and innovation! It’s fascinating to me that we have a trio of values here that says volumes about the leadership crisis being debated through the Manning/Snowden/Wikileaks whistleblower controversy.

First, there’s freedom of speech and the moral responsibility to speak up when something is wrong — here’s the superhero myth of leadership that, in human terms, makes whistleblowers into leaders and civil rights marchers into freedom fighters. With great freedom comes great responsibility — to stand up, whatever the cost. For those who believe Manning is this kind of leader, his possible 136 year-sentence is too much of a cost for the moral courage he showed.

Second, there’s loyalty and the moral responsibility to move through the chain of command when you see something’s going wrong, and protecting the secrets, the image and the nation in the process. This is the great persuader myth of leadership that, in human terms, makes patient bureaucrats and careful soldiers into quiet (read invisible) leaders. For those who believe Manning should have been this kind of leader, his pending sentence is partly deserved, because he stepped out of the chain of command and broke the moral contract of his uniform.

Finally, there’s the pioneer who sees a way to quickly make a change, and does so through an avenue that is both innovative and highly visible. Here’s the risk-taker myth of leadership that, in human terms, makes mistakes into experiments and messes into opportunities. For those who believe Manning is a pioneer, his pending sentence is simply the price of the ticket, like Indian wars and starvation winters were for the westward ho leaders who colonized new territories 200 years ago.

I think we need to let go of all three of these leadership myths, because they’re so emotionally charged that we can’t see the issue at hand. It’s time to deeply explore this challenging question: in an age when most of our daily conversations are public through technology and surveillance, what are the ethical ways for leaders and followers to use that technology to renegotiate the core values that are transforming because of that technology?

For a full accounting of Manning’s conviction, see the Guardian’s excellent article.


One comment

  1. […] puts the status quo on the offensive — fighting for stability in the face of change. Manning, hero or villain depending on your perspective, and perhaps naive at first about the gravity of leaking military knowledge, learned that lesson […]


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