Once each year during the holidays, the Societies of all the Service Academies in the Greater Kansas City area sponsor a formal dinner in Kansas City to celebrate the cadets and midshipmen from Western Missouri and Eastern Kansas. Cadets, midshipmen, dates, and families attend. Attendance is always good.
I was fortunate to have been in the Kansas City business community and the civic community for some time. I was asked to be the keynote speaker at the 2011 event, and to discuss the role of an academy experience in the development of honorable leaders. I made a study of it to add more impact. Here is the outcome:
“Good evening and thank you for inviting me. It is always an honor to be among great Americans and great Americans to be. And that is the topic that I have been asked to speak about…specifically, what is it about an Academy experience that positions you to become great Americans? And what will motivate you to truly achieve throughout your career, regardless of your chosen field?
Tonight, I am going to share with you the wisdom of many great and accomplished graduates. Let’s talk about how an Academy experience sets you apart as you pursue your career, whatever that career might be.
When I began to prepare for this talk, I quickly realized that I am just one person with just one journey. I did not believe that my input alone was good enough for tonight. And so, I went to graduates of all the Academies, and I focused on prominent general officers, surgeons, lawyers, CEO’s, astronauts, entrepreneurs, authors, actors, congressmen and congresswomen, ambassadors, coaches, university presidents, and many more.
The very fact that people like Roger Staubach, Mike Krzyzewski, General Wesley Clark, General Scott Wallace, the Chairman of the Board of Johnson & Johnson, the CEO of General Motors, the CEO of 7-11, the Chairman of Comfort Systems, and many others WANTED to share their lessons and perspectives speaks volumes about the importance of the message we have for you.
Once I had inputs from prominent graduates, I sorted them into common themes. Surprisingly, there were but nine themes that came through. Some will not surprise you. But as we move through them, I believe that you will be surprised, even moved, by what you learn tonight.
So here are the collective thoughts on the truly significant things an Academy experience gives you:
- Discipline and the ability to prioritize. You made it this far, so you understand discipline and prioritizing already. It will matter throughout your life.
- A strong sense of teamwork. Let me explain ‘strong sense of teamwork’. I struggled in chemistry. A classmate of mine stayed up all night before the final to help prepare me to pass. He was a contender for the top position in rank order of merit academically and could justify studying for himself. Instead, he stayed up all night with me helping me to prepare.
- How to assess situations and make good, honorable decisions.
- How to genuinely listen to people…superiors, peers, and subordinates. Too many people never learn to listen to subordinates.
- You are learning how and when to lead.
- You are learning how and when to follow.
- You are learning how to maintain your poise and values in difficult situations.
- You are gaining a deep insight into yourself and what you are capable of.
- And finally, and perhaps most important, you are learning lessons in honor and leadership, to include the ability to motivate people to act for the love of accomplishment, the love of the team, or love of Country. NOT LOVE OF MONEY! You are learning leadership with honor, the truest form of leadership.
These attributes that you are gaining have great value for you and the people around you. They create trust and respect that are fundamental to great teams.
Keep in mind, too, that your development is a 2-part process. First, you gain these important attributes at the Academy. Then, you serve in the Military, where you are given great and challenging leadership responsibilities very quickly. It is the military experience that hones your attributes and builds your courage about accepting responsibility and making honorable decisions.
But having these unique and wonderful attributes and leadership experiences is only a portion of the final equation for you. To achieve great things, to be a great American, you must have the drive to achieve throughout your lifetime.
What you probably least recognize about what you are experiencing at the Academy is that you are being shaped by the integrity, the honor, and the drive of the people around you.
Every day you are surrounded by great individual leaders, famous visitors, upperclassmen and women who excel, and great young professors who themselves have your attributes. Consider this, the young officers who taught me at West Point included Major Pete Dawkins (Heisman Trophy winner), Major Norman Schwarzkopf (Commander, Operation Desert Storm), Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Haig (U.S. Secretary of State), and Specialist 4th Class Arthur Ashe (Tennis Grand Slam winner). And you are surrounded by similar talent, advancing on their respective journeys.
Just the singular honor and dignity of being a cadet or midshipman in these environments is shaping you and your drive. YOUR PHILOSOPHY FOR LIFE IS BEING INFLUENCED RIGHT NOW BY THE VALUES AND INTEGRITY OF THE PEOPLE WHO SURROUND YOU. And most important in that group, especially after you graduate, is your bond with your classmates. As they go forward and achieve, so too, will you, because you are bonded, and you all have the power of honor and integrity within you.
I recall like it was yesterday being at one of my reunions. We had gone off post for a casual dinner dance. Our class band was playing our class song and we were all out on the dance floor going nuts like we were still cadets. I looked this way and saw a classmate who was a veteran astronaut; I looked that way and saw the Ambassador to Germany… the same man who had just negotiated the end to the first Iraq War; and I look over this way and see one of the first Dot.com billionaires; and over here I see the head basketball coach from Duke. Besides these classmates, I see many who are advancing fast in their military careers, and in other careers. Believe me, the honor and the motivation you feel at the Academy only grows within you as you get older, and everyone’s responsibilities grow.
By the way, our class song was the Animals hit “We Gotta Get Out of This Place”. Our class band, “B. Arnold and the Traitors”, still plays at all of our reunions. So, my class was no less irreverent or playful than your class might be today.
I leave you with one last piece of wisdom; something that has helped guide me several times in my career. You will go on from your Academy experience to do great and wonderful things. But you will also be different from some of the other people you encounter. You will meet people whose motives are not driven by honor or integrity or choosing the harder right over the easier wrong. Often, it will be you who is in the arena fighting to make something good happen when these critics come along. I’d like to share an excerpt from a famous speech by President Teddy Roosevelt. The speech is about the man in the arena. It goes like this:
“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles; or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena; whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who knows great enthusiasms; who spends himself in a worthy cause”.
There will be times in your career when you see greed, or ego, or questionable practices. Stick to your values and protect your honor. They are, after all, what define you, what motivate you, what make you exceptional in the eyes of others, and what bond you to all Academy graduates.
Teddy Roosevelt, later in his speech about the man in the arena says this:
“There is little use for the being whose tepid soul knows nothing of great and generous emotion; of the high pride, the stern belief, the lofty enthusiasm of the men [and women] who quell the storm and ride the thunder”.
Ladies and Gentlemen, be true to your honor and your values; be true to your bond to all of us who have gone before you; and be especially true to your classmates and your family. And go forth with confidence as you ‘quell the storm and ride the thunder’.
Thank you again and Godspeed to each and every one of you.” 1415 words