Robert Gates—easily President Obama’s finest cabinet member—delivered his final commencement address as defense secretary on Friday. Speaking to the graduates at the U.S. Naval Academy, Gates (who has served under eight presidents and will retire next month) offered his reflections on the nature of leadership. His speech included this passage:
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.
There is great wisdom in these words; and they are easier to accept by virtue of the fact that Robert M. Gates himself personified leadership and integrity.
He leaves public life having served his nation very well and with honor.