Qualities of a Leader

Adapted from a speech given by the then Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates at the commencement of the class of 2011 of the United States Naval Academy, Annapolis, Maryland, on Friday, May 27, 2011.  Below is only a portion of the speech.  This excerpt highlights the qualities of a leader that Secretary Gates feels are important to these young Naval leaders as they enter into their career.


I would like to start by thanking each of today’s graduates for choosing to serve your country and your fellow citizens.  In everything you did here – from studying for exams to training sessions with your upperclassmen – you have grown together as a team.  But there has also been something bigger uniting you: your willingness to take on a difficult and dangerous path in the service of others.

While many people witness history, those who step forward to serve in a time of crisis have a place in history.  As of today, you join the long line of patriots in a noble calling.  By your service you will have a chance to leave your mark on history.

The graduates of this institution are not average citizens – and so you can never be content to be merely “good citizens.”  You must be great citizens.  In everything you do, you must always make sure that you live up to the highest personal and professional standards of duty, service, and honor – the values of the Navy, the values of the U.S. armed forces, the values of the best traditions of our country.  Indeed, when you are called to lead, when you are called to stand in defense of your country in faraway lands, you must hold your values and your honor close to your heart. 

As you start your careers as leaders today, I would like to offer some brief thoughts on those qualities.  For starters, great leaders must have vision – the ability to get your eyes off your shoelaces at every level of rank and responsibility, and see beyond the day-to-day tasks and problems; to be able to look beyond tomorrow and discern a world of possibilities and potential.   How do you take any outfit to a higher level of excellence?  You must see what others do not or cannot, and then be prepared to act on your vision.

An additional quality necessary for leadership is deep conviction.  True leadership is a fire in the mind that transforms all who feel its warmth; that transfixes all who see its shining light in the eyes of a man or woman.  It is a strength of purpose and belief in a cause that reaches out to others, touches their hearts, and makes them eager to follow.

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.

I hope you will keep these thoughts with you as you advance in your careers.  Above all, remember that the true measure of leadership is not how you react in times of peace or times without peril.  The true measure of leadership is how you react when the wind leaves your sails, when the tide turns against you.  

Just to get accepted to the Naval Academy, most of you have probably succeeded – in many cases brilliantly – at pretty much everything you’ve done – in the classroom, on the playing field, or in other activities.   I know this institution has challenged you in new ways.  But from here on out, it just gets harder.  The risk of failure or setbacks will only grow as your responsibilities grow, and with them the consequences of your decisions. 

So know this.  At some point along your path, you will surely encounter failure or disappointment of one kind or another.  Nearly all of us have.  If at those times you hold true to your standards, then you will always succeed, if only in knowing you stayed true and honorable.  In the final analysis, what really matters are not the failures and disappointments themselves, but how you respond. 

To be able to respond to setbacks with perseverance and determination should apply as well to the military institutions you lead.  I want each of you to take that lesson of adaptability, of responding to setbacks by improving yourself and your institution, and that example of success, with you as you go forward into the Navy and the Marine Corps you will someday lead.

The qualities of leadership I have described this morning 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 have made here at the Academy and will make early in your career and must be strengthened all along the way to allow you to resist the temptation of self before service.

“United States Naval Academy Commencement, As Delivered by Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates, Annapolis, Maryland, Friday, May 27, 2011.”  http://www.defense.gov//speeches/speech.aspx?speechid=1574.  Accessed 27 May 2011.  http://www.defense.gov/

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