Gates urges West Point graduates to become great leaders
May 25, 2009
WEST POINT, N.Y. -- Before 970 cadets took the commissioning oath or "covers" were tossed high overhead, graduating West Point cadets heard some praise and sage advice from their future boss.
"Consider that the future members of this class would have been filling out your academy applications in the fall of 2004, at about the same time of the second battle of Fallujah," said Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, during his commencement address to the Military Academy's graduating Class of 2009. "You made your decision to serve knowing not only that America was at war ... but that this war would be bloody, difficult, of indefinite length and uncertain outcome.
"In doing so, you showed courage, commitment, and patriotism of the highest order," he added.
The Class of 2009 includes 144 women and 17 foreign cadets, the majority of whom were commissioned as second lieutenants. The foreign cadets, who will return to their nations for service, represent Afghanistan, Belize, Brunei, Bulgaria, Chad, Jamaica, Jordan, Kazakhstan, Lithuania, Maldives, Republic of Korea, Singapore, Sri Lanka, Taiwan, Thailand and Tunisia.
Though wars today look little like wars of the past, the principles of soldiering have changed little, said the secretary, a former Air Force lieutenant and CIA officer.
Leadership is still a key component., Gates stressed.
"When all is said and done, the kind of leader you become is up to you, based on the choices you make," he said, offering the graduates the same wisdom he offers new generals. "It is about a leadership quality that is really basic and simple - but so basic and simple that too often it's forgotten - and that is the importance, as you lead, of doing so with common decency and respect toward your subordinates.
"Harry Truman had it right when he observed that one of the surest ways to judge someone is how well - or poorly - he treats those who 'can't talk back,'" he added.
As an example, Gates told of George Washington stopping to help repair a fort after asking the soldier supervising why he wasn't helping.
The supervisor, without recognizing Washington, who was in civilian attire, had informed the general that he was a corporal. To which Washington replied: "Mr. Corporal, next time you have a job like this and not enough men to do it, go to your commander in chief and I will come and help you again."
Conversely, Washington learned a thing or two about respecting his men as well, Gates said. When he came upon a soldier drinking wine and turned down an invitation to partake he declined, drawing an indignant retort. Washington reconsidered, had a drink with the man and consequently, earned his loyalty.
"Treating soldiers decently also extends to making sure that they, and their families, are properly taken care of - body, mind, and soul," Gate said. "It is the families who often bear the harshest brunt of a soldier's overseas combat tour, particularly when it's a second or even third or forth deployment."
Gates said a second fundamental quality of leadership is integrity, which consists of physical courage - doing the hard right over the easier, more popular wrong - and moral courage.
Moral courage is often harder to find.
"The hardest thing you may ever be called upon to do is stand alone among your peers and superior officers," he said. "To stick out your neck after discussion becomes consensus, and consensus ossifies into group think."
He called upon the example of former Army chief of staff George C. Marshall who had no qualms about telling the likes of Gen. John Joseph "Black Jack" Pershing and Franklin Delano Roosevelt things they didn't particularly want to hear. Ultimately, Marshall's integrity and courage were rewarded, which is what should happen in a perfect world, Gates said, adding that sadly this is not always the case.
The moral principles of leadership, he went on, are timeless and apply to any military leader of any generation.
"So do a range of other choices you will face about the leader you aspire to become," he said. "I refer to those relating to the kind of judgment, wisdom, and mental skills - the intellectual attributes, if you will - that will be most needed to be successful as an Army leader."
The United States' military can't succeed in the face of the full-spectrum conflict it faces without military leaders who are just as full-spectrum in their thinking.
"We will not be able to train or educate you to have all the right answers - as one might find in a manual - but you should look for those experience and pursuits in your career that will help you at least ask the right questions," Gates said. "To this end, in addition to the essential troop commands and staff assignments, you should consider, and in fact embrace, opportunities that in the past were considered off the beaten path, if not a career dead end."
Such paths include further study, teaching, being a fellow at a think tank, advising indigenous security forces, becoming a foreign area specialist, or service in other parts of the government. All of these experiences will make for more successful military leaders in the 21st Century, he said.
As a final thought to the cadets Gates said he considers his own sons and daughters, he offered this: "I believe that only strength, eternal vigilance, and the continuing courage and commitment of warriors like you - and your willingness to serve at all costs - will keep the sacred light of American liberty shining; a beacon to all the world.
"You will shortly take an oath to protect and defend the Constitution and we, the American people. The nation stands in awe of you and I salute you."