WASHINGTON, D.C. — Investments in leadership will pay dividends the U.S. military can’t imagine today, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said during a recent interview.
Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey spoke at length about leadership, and said he is still learning about the subject.
“Leadership is kind of a journey — not a destination,” the chairman said. “If you ever think you’ve got it right and you don’t have anything more to learn about leadership, then you’re probably making a very serious mistake.”
The chairman said he draws upon a lifetime of leadership experience. And, he added, he has taken lessons from and has listened to mentors from a plethora of professions and situations. He has taken lessons from his parents, friends, military leaders and civilian acquaintances. These experiences span the range from high school in Orange County, New York, to the highest levels of government.
Dempsey said his leadership philosophy has three key principles: expertise, humility and courage.
“The nation counts on us uniquely to provide expertise in how to use the military instrument of power to both protect and promote our national interests,” he said. “I started my career as a tanker, and I fundamentally wanted to be the best tank commander in the Army long before I wanted to be a company commander or a battalion commander.”
Learning everything possible about jobs — whatever job a person has — is key, Dempsey said.
“Bloom where you’re planted, because you’ll never know where you’re going to end up,” he said. “Whatever you do, don’t accept mediocrity. There’s no place for mediocrity in the world we live in.”
Dempsey said humility is his second guiding leadership principle, and this touches on building relationships.
“I think leadership is all about relationships,” he said. “The precursor to building relationships … is humility. Because if people question your motivation to lead — if they think you are leading for self-benefit — they will be suspicious and far less inclined to approach you.”
Being humble does not exclude ambition, said Dempsey, noting ambition makes people want to excel.
“But I would always remind myself that in exercising leadership … that I also had to balance that with a sincere degree of humility,” he said. “People know if you’re yourself. If you are trying to be somebody you’re not and putting on airs or lacking humility, it’ll come through pretty quick. It’s really hard to build relationships without humility.”
Courage is the third principle, he said, and that includes both physical courage and moral courage.
“You have to decide what right looks like, and then actively seek it,” he said. “In a world that’s constantly changing and where things seem ambiguous and you can talk yourself into relativism, you have to have a moral compass. You have to have that inner voice that says, ‘This is the correct path.’ In listening to that voice, you then have to have the moral courage to walk that path.”
Dempsey said moral courage means acting on deeply held values, and these cannot be abstract ideas. If “duty” is a core value, he said, then service members need to take the time to understand what that value entails.
Leadership is about building teams and that means bringing together a sometimes disparate group of people to reach a common goal, Dempsey said. During a recent talk at Texas A&M’s Student Conference on National Affairs the chairman noted that in discussions about national affairs, “you almost have to talk about who we are as a nation.”
America is all about “the dash,” he said.
“More than any other country in the world, we are a nation of Irish-American, African-Americans, Hispanic-Americans, Polish-Americans, Muslim-Americans — fill in the blanks and that’s really what makes us different,” the chairman said. “When I go back to my roots, they really understood that, the way I hope this generation appreciates it.”
He added, “At our most ideal, we are a nation of diversity and it is that diversity that gives us our identity as a nation and our standing in the world.”
The dash is what makes America special, he said. Immigrants to the United States quickly become part of the larger ideal of America.
“In other parts of the world, you will have people who are of mixed ethnicity and mixed religion but they simply don’t integrate into the society the way we do,” he said. “And we should never take that for granted. We have to work at that.”
The best teams, Dempsey said, find “that special sauce” that is trust among people who might not have any reason to come together.
“I just saw a movie called ‘When the Game Stands Tall’ … it was about a football team that had a 150-game winning streak and they lost a game,” he said. “It completely shook the fabric of the team and they had to go back to what made them great in the first place, which is when you become part of a team … you have to give up some of yourself for the team. The whole becomes greater than the sum of its parts.”
America is like that, the chairman said.
“When you think about us as a nation, it is certainly an issue of bringing together people who otherwise might not ever have a reason to live together or work together or appreciate each other, and when we are at our best, it’s when that kind of a commitment is made,” he said. “Where we trust that our fellow citizen … will act both for their self-benefit and for the benefit of the team. Then we find those teams that are extraordinary.”
Today is a time of change and it requires strong leaders, Dempsey said.
“We don’t know what will happen next, but we know it will happen quicker,” the general said. “The requirement is to be adaptive.”
The key is learning, he said.
“From the time I’ve had influence at the senior leader level I’ve put a premium on leader development,” Dempsey said. “And as I look back and wonder if I got it right in terms of priorities, I can say with great confidence that my focus on leader development has been the right focus.”
This is because quick, thoughtful, agile leaders can adapt, he said.
“Because of all the different challenges coming our way, we’re going to find that some of the equipment we field won’t be exactly right for everything,” Dempsey said. “It might be right to field a piece of equipment for Europe or the Korean Peninsula, but it might be ill-suited to what we need to do in the Middle East.
“So the equipment is not going to be perfectly suited to need 100 percent of the time,” he continued. “Similarly, our doctrine and our organization and even the guidance we give … is not going to be perfectly suited. And so these young men and women out there on the edge — it’ll be their responsibility to take what they are given … and apply it in a way that will allow us to protect our national interest and promote our values.”
Dempsey said his 41-year military career has convinced him that life where service is involved is a more rewarding life. The chairman said you can never stop learning about leadership. He recommended “Once an Eagle,” the Anton Myrer novel about two U.S. military officers serving from World War I through Vietnam, for reading.
“I take information or pieces from many different areas and knit them together,” the chairman said.
With leadership, there is a lot to think about, Dempsey said.
“I wouldn’t mind being at the beginning of this leadership thing again, because it’s been quite a ride,” he said.