Real Leadership Is A Rare, Precious Commodity

Robert Gates

(Note: Secretary Gates gave the following commencement address to graduates of the United States Naval Academy on Friday, May 27, 2011.)

Distinguished guests, members of the public, leaders of the Navy — past, present, and future. It is a special honor to join you today for this long-anticipated and well-deserved celebration.

I first want to welcome and thank the family members who are here today. Your support and encouragement have made this day possible for these young men and women. More importantly, you have nourished their spirits and molded their character. You have instilled in them love of country and a willingness to serve. And now you entrust to the nation your most treasured possession.

Thanks also to the sponsor families of midshipmen. Over the past four years, you have opened your homes to these young men and women, providing a good meal or a respite from Academy life. Or a shoulder to lean on. Your guidance and your caring helped make today possible for your mids.

To the class of 2011, congratulations!

As the first order of business, I will exercise my authority as U.S. Secretary of Defense to grant amnesty to all midshipmen whose antics led to minor conduct offenses. As always, Vice Admiral Miller has the final say on what constitutes “minor.”

Today’s speech represents my final commencement speech as defense secretary, culminating a month of five commencement addresses, the most recent being last Sunday at Notre Dame. From my brief time there I can report to you that the Notre Dame student body is moving through grief to denial to anger over the pounding Navy football delivered to them last October. On a related note, whenever Ricky Dobbs finally throws his hat in the ring for President of the United States, he’ll have my endorsement.

I would like to start by thanking each of today’s graduates for choosing to serve your country and your fellow citizens. In everything you did here – from studying for exams to training sessions with your upperclassmen – you have grown together as a team. But there has also been something bigger uniting you: your willingness to take on a difficult and dangerous path in the service of others.

I made my first academy commencement address here in Annapolis in May 2007. A short time later you arrived here to begin a remarkable educational experience, an experience that concludes today. All of you made the decision to enter this academy and active military service during the toughest stretch of the Iraq war – you reported here when casualties were at their highest and prospects of success uncertain at best. At the same time, the Taliban were making their comeback in Afghanistan, and history’s most notorious terrorist was still at large. As a result of the skill and sacrifice of countless young warriors and patriots – many of them graduates of this institution – I am proud to say that we face a different set of circumstances today: Iraq has a real chance at a peaceful and democratic future; in Afghanistan the Taliban momentum has been halted and reversed; and Osama bin Laden is finally where he belongs.

While many people witness history, those who step forward to serve in a time of crisis have a place in history. As of today, you join the long line of patriots in a noble calling. By your service you will have a chance to leave your mark on history.

Almost 100 years ago, President Theodore Roosevelt delivered an extraordinary speech called “Citizenship in a Republic.” He observed:

“In the long run, [our society’s] success or failure will be conditioned upon the way in which the average man, the average woman, does his or her duty. . . The average citizen must be a good citizen if our republics are to succeed.” Roosevelt then went on to say: “the average cannot be kept high unless the standard of the leaders is very much higher.”

The graduates of this institution are not average citizens – and so you can never be content to be merely “good citizens.” You must be great citizens. In everything you do, you must always make sure that you live up to the highest personal and professional standards of duty, service, and honor – the values of the Navy, the values of the U.S. armed forces, the values of the best traditions of our country. Indeed, when you are called to lead, when you are called to stand in defense of your country in faraway lands, you must hold your values and your honor close to your heart.

Forty-six years ago this month I graduated from college also having committed to public service. In the decades since – in the Air Force, at CIA, in the White House, and now at the Pentagon – I served under eight presidents and had the opportunity to observe many other great leaders along the way. From this experience I have learned that real leadership is a rare and precious commodity, and requires qualities that many people might possess piecemeal to varying degrees, but few exhibit in total.

As you start your careers as leaders today, I would like to offer some brief thoughts on those qualities. For starters, great leaders must have vision – the ability to get your eyes off your shoelaces at every level of rank and responsibility, and see beyond the day-to-day tasks and problems. To be able to look beyond tomorrow and discern a world of possibilities and potential. How do you take any outfit to a higher level of excellence? You must see what others do not or cannot, and then be prepared to act on your vision.

An additional quality necessary for leadership is deep conviction. True leadership is a fire in the mind that transforms all who feel its warmth, that transfixes all who see its shining light in the eyes of a man or woman. It is a strength of purpose and belief in a cause that reaches out to others, touches their hearts, and makes them eager to follow.

Self-confidence is still another quality of leadership. Not the chest-thumping, strutting egotism we see and read about all the time. Rather, it is the quiet self-assurance that allows a leader to give others both real responsibility and real credit for success. The ability to stand in the shadow and let others receive attention and accolades. A leader is able to make decisions but then delegate and trust others to make things happen. This doesn’t mean turning your back after making a decision and hoping for the best. It does mean trusting in people at the same time you hold them accountable. The bottom line: a self-confident leader doesn’t cast such a large shadow that no one else can grow.

A further quality of leadership is courage: not just the physical courage of the seas, of the skies and of the trenches, but moral courage. The courage to chart a new course; the courage to do what is right and not just what is popular; the courage to stand alone; the courage to act; the courage as a military officer to “speak truth to power.”

In most academic curricula today, and in most business, government, and military training programs, there is great emphasis on team-building, on working together, on building consensus, on group dynamics. You have learned a lot about that. But, for everyone who would become a leader, the time will inevitably come when you must stand alone. When alone you must say, “This is wrong” or “I disagree with all of you and, because I have the responsibility, this is what we will do.” Don’t kid yourself – that takes real courage.

Another essential quality of leadership is integrity. Without this, real leadership is not possible. Nowadays, it seems like integrity – or honor or character – is kind of quaint, a curious, old-fashioned notion. We read of too many successful and intelligent people in and out of government who succumb to the easy wrong rather than the hard right – whether from inattention or a sense of entitlement, the notion that rules are not for them. But for a real leader, personal virtues – self-reliance, self control, honor, truthfulness, morality – are absolute. These are the building blocks of character, of integrity – and only on that foundation can real leadership be built.

A final quality of real leadership, I believe, is simply common decency: treating those around you – and, above all, your subordinates – with fairness and respect. An acid test of leadership is how you treat those you outrank, or as President Truman once said, “how you treat those who can’t talk back.”

Whatever your military specialty might be, use your authority over others for constructive purposes, to help them – to watch out and care for them and their families, to help them improve their skills and advance, to ease their hardships whenever possible. All of this can be done without compromising discipline or mission or authority. Common decency builds respect and, in a democratic society, respect is what prompts people to give their all for a leader, even at great personal sacrifice.

I hope you will keep these thoughts with you as you advance in your careers. Above all, remember that the true measure of leadership is not how you react in times of peace or times without peril. The true measure of leadership is how you react when the wind leaves your sails, when the tide turns against you.

Just to get accepted to the Naval Academy, most of you have probably succeeded – in many cases brilliantly – at pretty much everything you’ve done – in the classroom, on the playing field, or in other activities. I know this institution has challenged you in new ways. But from here on out it just gets harder. The risk of failure or setbacks will only grow as your responsibilities grow, and with them the consequences of your decisions.

So know this. At some point along your path, you will surely encounter failure or disappointment of one kind or another. Nearly all of us have. If at those times you hold true to your standards, then you will always succeed, if only in knowing you stayed true and honorable. In the final analysis, what really matters are not the failures and disappointments themselves, but how you respond. About 40 years ago, a young ensign ran his gasoline tanker into a buoy, fouling the propeller in the process – typically a career killer. I work with that same naval officer every day. He is now the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Michael Mullen.

To be able to respond to setbacks with perseverance and determination should apply as well to the military institutions you lead. I will never forget the night of April 24th, 1980. I was executive assistant to the CIA director at the time, and was in the White House during the secret mission to rescue American hostages in Iran. I had been in on the planning from the beginning and, while the operation was clearly risky, I honestly believed it would work. It did not. Soon, images of burnt helicopters and the charred remains of U.S. servicemen splashed around the world. It was truly a low ebb for our nation and for a military that was still recovering from Vietnam.

But then the special operations community, and the U.S. military as a whole, pulled itself together, reformed the way it was trained and organized, took on the corrosive service parochialism that had hobbled our military institutionally and operationally.

And so, just under a month ago, I once again spent a nerve-wracking afternoon in the White House as a risky special operations mission was underway. When word of a downed helicopter came back my heart sank, remembering that awful night thirty years ago. But this time, of course, there was a very different result:

• A mass murderer was brought to a fitting end;

• A world in awe of America’s military prowess;

• A country relieved that justice was done and, frankly, that their government could do something hard and do it right; and

• A powerful blow struck on behalf of democratic civilization against its most lethal and determined enemies.

I want each of you to take that lesson of adaptability, of responding to setbacks by improving yourself and your institution, and that example of success, with you as you go forward into the Navy and the Marine Corps you will someday lead.

The qualities of leadership I have described this morning do not suddenly emerge fully developed overnight or as a revelation after you have assumed important responsibilities. These qualities have their roots in the small decisions you have made here at the Academy and will make early in your career and must be strengthened all along the way to allow you to resist the temptation of self before service.

As I mentioned earlier, this is my last address to America’s service academies, my last opportunity to engage the future leaders of our military as your defense secretary. As I look out upon you this morning, I am reminded of what so struck and moved me when I went from being a university president to U.S. Secretary of Defense in a time of war. At Texas A&M I would walk the campus, and I would see thousands of students aged 18-25, typically wearing t-shirts and shorts and backpacks. The day after I became Secretary of Defense, in December 2006, I made my first visit to the war theater. And there I encountered other young men and women also 18 to 25. Except they were wearing body armor and carrying assault rifles, putting their lives at risk for all Americans. And I knew that some of them would not make it home whole, and that some would not make it home at all.

I knew then that soon all those in harm’s way would be there because I sent them. Ever since, I have come to work every day, with a sense of personal responsibility for each and every young American in uniform — as if you were my own sons and daughters. My only prayer is that you serve with honor and come home safely. I personally thank you from the bottom of my heart for your service. Serving and leading you has been the greatest honor of my life,

May you have fair winds and following seas. Congratulations.