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Defending the Dreams of Others

By Robert Gates

(Editor's Note: Secretary of Defense Gates delivered the following commencement address at the United States Naval Academy on Friday, May 25, 2007)

Admiral Mullen, General Magnus, distinguished guests. It is a special honor to join you today for this long-anticipated and well-deserved celebration. It is an honor I thought I would never have, and perhaps for more than a few of you, a celebration you thought would never come.

While I presided over 39 commencement ceremonies as President of Texas A&M University, this is only the second one at which I have spoken. One lesson I learned from those 39 commencements was to keep it short. Because, to paraphrase President Lincoln, you will little note nor long remember what is said here. [snip]

I have four points I want to make this morning.

First, I want to thank you 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. Your class motto is fitting: "Libertas per Sacrificium," Liberty through Sacrifice.

Most of you were juniors in high school when terrorists attacked America in September 2001, and it became clear we were a nation at war. With your credentials, you could have attended another prestigious university, and subsequently pursued a private life, with all of its material rewards, your freedom and safety assured by other young men and women who volunteered to serve in the American military.

You, however, are special, because you are among those who have chosen to serve - to defend the dreams of others. And that sets you apart.

In the latest of nights - while studying for naval leadership finals - you may have wondered why you needed to know the differences between Chester Nimitz and Chesty Puller. But in studying the great Navy and Marine Corps leaders - and the people and battles memorialized throughout this stadium - you learned the one thing that united all of the men and women who came before you: they served because they loved their country more than themselves.

While many people may witness history, those who step forward to serve in a time of crisis never have to question their place in history. And, as today you join the long line of patriots in a noble calling, by your service you will have your chance to make history.

During the War of the American Revolution, Abigail Adams wrote the following to her son, John Quincy: "These are times in which a genius would wish to live. It is not in the still calm of life or [in] the repose of a pacific station that great characters are formed. ...great necessities call out great virtues."

You begin your service in a time of "great necessities." Therein lies your challenge and your opportunity. And for your willingness to serve, the entire nation is grateful.

My second point. Today you will take an oath to protect and defend the Constitution of the United States. I have taken that oath seven times in the last forty years - the first when I enlisted in 1966 and the last when I became Secretary of Defense.

Today, I want to encourage you always to remember the importance of two pillars of our freedom under the Constitution - the Congress and the press. Both surely try our patience from time to time, but they are the surest guarantees of the liberty of the American people.

The Congress is a co-equal branch of government that under the Constitution raises armies and provides for navies. Members of both parties now serving in Congress have long been strong supporters of the Department of Defense, and of our men and women in uniform.

As officers, you will have a responsibility to communicate to those below you that the American military must be non-political and recognize the obligation we owe the Congress to be honest and true in our reporting to them. Especially when it involves admitting mistakes or problems.

The same is true with the press, in my view a critically important guarantor of our freedom. When it identifies a problem, as at Walter Reed, the response of senior leaders should be to find out if the allegations are true - as they were at Walter Reed - and if so, say so, and then act to remedy the problem. If untrue, then be able to document that fact. The press is not the enemy, and to treat it as such is self-defeating.

As the Founding Fathers wisely understood, the Congress and a free press, as with a non-political military, assure a free country. A point underscored by a French observer writing about George Washington in 1782. He wrote: "This is the seventh year that he has commanded the army and that he has obeyed the Congress; more need not be said."

A third point. Don't ever lose your sense of humor. In times of unbearable stress and crisis, finding a way to smile or laugh will make you a better officer and a better decision-maker. So, once in a while, put your trash can on your desk and label it "in-box;" when the money comes out of the ATM, yell "I won, I won;" at lunch time, sit in your parked car with sunglasses on and point a hair dryer at passing cars and see if they slow down.

I'm kidding, but you get the point. Above all, be willing to laugh at yourself. The bottom line: humor will keep you sane and balanced in the most difficult circumstances.

Fourth, and finally, I want to say a few words about leadership, a subject you have studied at length here at the Academy and learned through experience as midshipmen. I probably can't tell you anything new about leadership, but perhaps I can offer a different perspective.

You see, I believe real leadership is a rare commodity. Believe me, I know. Over the course of my career, I have been privileged to work for seven presidents. I knew six personally and worked for four in the White House. I have worked with 10 secretaries of state, 8 secretaries of defense, 11 national security advisors, 9 chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and more admirals, generals, and ambassadors than I can count. I witnessed in person and in action world figures such as Margaret Thatcher, Mikhail Gorbachev, Boris Yeltsin, Francois Mitterand, Helmut Kohl, Lech Walesa, Anwar Sadat, Yitzhak Rabin, and many others. I suppose I am sort of a global Forrest Gump.

To be a leader at any level, from president to junior officer, I believe the following qualities are required:

Vision. If you would be a real leader, you must see beyond the day-to-day tasks and challenges. You must look beyond tomorrow and discern a world of possibilities and potential. You must see what others do not or cannot and then be prepared to act on your vision.

Another quality 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.

But there are many, many people for whom personal integrity and honor are as important as life itself. I have encountered many such people during my forty years in public service - and you will encounter many during your careers.

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 true leadership be built.

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 people at the same time you have a regular reporting mechanism, and are holding 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: 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 heard a lot about that. But, for everyone who would become a leader, the time comes when he or she must stand alone and 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 courage.

Vision, integrity, deep conviction, and self-confidence are not enough to make a leader; a leader must have the courage to act, often against the will of the crowd. As President Ford once said, "... the greatest defeat of all would be to live without courage, for that would hardly be living at all."

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.

A real leader, in my experience, from the lowest rung of the ladder to the top, treats every person with respect and dignity.

Use your authority over others for constructive purposes, to help them - to watch out and care for them, to help them improve their skills and to 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 personal sacrifice.

In a novel about ancient Greece, the warrior Alcibiades is asked how to lead free men, and he responds: "By being better and thus commanding their emulation." Alcibiades goes on, "A commander's role is to model ... excellence before his men. One need not thrash them to greatness, only hold it out before them. They will be compelled by their own nature to emulate it." He concludes: "How [to] lead free men? Only by this means: the summoning of each to his nobility."

Today is a joyous day in a difficult time. So thank your parents and your sponsor families for all the love and care they have given you. And celebrate. For today, you take on the awesome responsibility of protecting and defending the Constitution of the United States and the American people. Today, we ask you to make the extraordinary the expected. Today, we ask you to lead free men and women by summoning each to his or her nobility.

Congratulations, God bless, and Godspeed.

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