09/04/2006 12:03 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

A Lesson in Leadership and Fearlessness from Max Cleland

As a Greek-American, I know a little something about heroes. We take them very seriously back in the old country. Not only is the bar for "hero" status set pretty high -- the word comes from the Greek, meaning "demi-god" -- but the purpose of the hero stories wasn't just blind veneration, it was instructional. In the drama of the hero, we could learn lessons for our daily lives.

Over here, the bar is set considerably lower -- hit enough baseballs or sell enough CDs and you're a hero.

Well, in Atlanta last Friday, I met an authentic American hero, Max Cleland, and his story is just as instructional as those I learned about growing up in Greece.

We met at Petite Auberge, his favorite French restaurant. We shared a beef Wellington and talked about fear.

To Cleland, fearlessness is essential to good leadership. Dealing with one's fears is what he calls "the inner work" necessary before one can become a leader. "If you're dominated by your fears," he told me, "you won't make good decisions when the hard times come and you are facing tough choices."

For him, dealing with your fears is synonymous with building character. Without completing that "inner work of preparation," you are just another poll-driven pol. And as citizens, we must do our part, too -- the more we can master our own fears, the more clear-eyed we will be and the less susceptible to disgraceful, fear-based campaigns, like the one run by Saxby Chambliss.

Chambliss, as many of you remember, is the man who ran against Cleland in 2002 and won by impugning Cleland's patriotism and indeed, running ads comparing him to Osama bin Laden. So a man who got out of military service by claiming a "bum knee" is now a United States Senator, having run a disgraceful campaign against a decorated war veteran who lost three limbs serving his country in Vietnam. What would have destroyed most men instead fueled Cleland's passion for public service. He went from running the Veterans Administration for Jimmy Carter, to Georgia Secretary of State, to the United State Senate in 1996. All this despite the fact that he needs constant care, and faces incredible challenges just to live, eat, and get around.

After dinner, he joked that he was going to be my opening act at the Agnes Scott Women's College, where I was speaking at the launch of the Decatur Book Festival, sponsored by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

When he was wheeled on stage the crowd of 900 erupted in a standing ovation. I was about to give my first speech on my new book, On Becoming Fearless, and here I was being introduced by a living embodiment of fearlessness and what it can do for us. I couldn't have dreamt of a better kick-off to my book tour.

Max Cleland's story is not only about fearlessness, but about the power of fear, the sickening exploitation of which is the reason why Cleland is no longer in the U.S. Senate.

That's why it's so essential that we all support a project close to Cleland's heart: The Patriot Project. Its mission statement -- as clear-eyed a statement of purpose as you'll ever see -- is:

Freedom of speech and the right to dissent are cornerstones of our democracy. The Patriot Project will defend any man or woman, regardless of party or affiliation, who is attacked or defamed and whose patriotism is questioned simply because they exercise their rights as Americans. This is our mission.

This includes pushing back against the upcoming smear campaign by a group ironically called "Vets for the Truth" against Congressman Jack Murtha. This new incarnation of the Swift Boaters is questioning Murtha's patriotism because he dared speak up on behalf of U.S. soldiers in demanding a strategy and timetable for bringing our troops home from Iraq.

As James Boyce, a veteran of the Kerry campaign who is currently among the group heading up The Patriot Project told me, "Logically, it's insane, but politically, it's brilliant. The right wing has literally turned the courageous military service of Democrats running for office into a liability. As a result of relentless fearmongering, we have the toy soldiers ruling the country while the real heroes are on the outside looking in."

Fortunately for this country, there is a large number of incredible first-time veteran candidates running in '06, including -- like Jim Webb in Virginia, Tammy Duckworth in Illinois , and Joe Sestak, Chris Carney and Patrick Murphy in Pennsylvania.

We know what Bush and Rove and their smear machine will be doing as we approach Election Day. It's not just the targets of their smears who will be tested, but the voters as well. Will we be taken in by the fearmongering of the White House or, like Max Cleland, will we do the hard work of mastering our fears so that we are prepared to see through the fear merchants and reject them?