"...do solemnly swear that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic..."

"For the good of the Air Force, for the good of the armed services and for the good of our country, I urge you to reject convention and careerism..."
- Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, Maxwell AFB, April 21, 2008

"You will need to challenge conventional wisdom and call things like you see them to subordinates and superiors alike."
- Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, United States Air Force Academy, March 4, 2011

Monday, April 5, 2010

Secretary Gates Sets Expectations for Air Force Officers - Courage and Candor

I have been incredibly impressed with our Secretary of Defense as this blog no doubt makes perfectly clear. His guidance to the Air Force in the form of his "expectations" is particularly good. In his address to the cadets of the Air Force Academy three days ago he discussed qualities "necessary for [officers] to be successful military leaders" and affirmed expectations he has set in the past. He cites his long history of working with numerous Presidents and his history as an Air Force officer and CIA officer but says his views are "particularly informed" by what he has seen in the last few years and especially by his meeting with the troops on the battlefield regardless of rank.

Highlighting a key quality for success in battle, the Secretary states "...we still need men and women in uniform who are willing to demonstrate uncommon courage - both on the battlefield and off." His emphasis on that courage being uncommon and its requirement off the battlefield show that Secretary Gates understands the challenges our institution faces. He develops the theme stating, "...there is another kind of courage beyond the battlefield I want to focus on today and that is the willingness for you to challenge the conventional wisdom and call things as you see them to subordinates and superiors alike." He cites an example from a Curtis LeMay biography and reminds officers, "So remember, regardless of their rank, all officers are human and fallible, even the ones wearing eagles and stars."

Secretary Gates then repeated a theme from past speeches saying:
If as an officer you don't tell blunt truths or create an environment where candor is encouraged, then you've done yourself and the institution a disservice. Make no mistake, the kind of candor and intellectual independence I'm referring to - and the willingness to stick to your guns under pressure - takes courage.
The Secretary cites examples of officers who personified that courage, Mitchell, Arnold, Schreiver, and Boyd and credits their ability to always speak truth to power as one reason for their success in shaping the service.

Secretary Gates doesn't shy away from the reality of courage - that it is real risk that precisely requires courage. The Secretary stated:
I should add that, in most of these cases, integrity and courage were ultimately rewarded professionally. In a perfect world, that should always happen. But, sadly, in the real word it does not, and I will not pretend there is not risk. You will all, at some point or another, work for a jackass. We all have. That is why speaking up often requires courage. But that does not make taking a stand any less necessary for the sake of our country.
Secretary Gates points out that "the need for candor is not just an abstract notion" and that "it has very real effects on the perception of the military and of the wars themselves - as well as operational impact."

He ends with invoking the great American fighter pilot, John Boyd:
Here at the Air Force Academy, as with every university and company in America, there’s a focus on teamwork, consensus-building, and collaboration. Yet make no mistake, the time will come for each of you when you must stand alone in making a difficult, unpopular decision; when you must challenge the opinion of superiors or tell them that you can’t get the job done with the time and resources available; or when you will know that what superiors are telling the press or the Congress or the American people is inaccurate. There will be moments when your entire career is at risk – where you will face Boyd’s proverbial fork in the road. To be or to do.

To be ready for that moment, you must have the discipline to cultivate integrity and moral courage from here at the Academy, and then from your earliest days as a commissioned officer. Those qualities 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 will make here and early in your career and must be strengthened all along the way to allow you to resist the temptation of self before service. And you must always ensure that your moral courage serves the greater good: that it serves what is best for the nation and our highest values – not a particular program nor pride nor parochialism.

For the good of the Air Force, for the good of the armed services, and for the good of our country, I urge you to reject convention and careerism. I urge you instead to be principled, creative, and reform-minded – to be leaders of integrity who, as Boyd put it, want to do something, not be somebody.

Read the Secretary's full speech here: http://www.defense.gov//speeches/speech.aspx?speechid=1443

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