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June 3, 2011

Defining Leadership

Joe Charlebois

This past week outgoing Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates spoke to the United States Naval Academy graduates at commencement for the last time as secretary. His speech applauded the graduates, their families and those you supported them through four difficult years.


He commended the graduates on their achievements, their dedication, and their commitment to serve during uneasy times.


The focal point of his speech could be summed up as “What constitutes leadership?” He stated that “real leadership is a rare and precious commodity, and requires qualities that many people might possess piecemeal to varying degrees, but few exhibit in total.”


Secretary Gates broke down the qualities that define leadership as vision, deep conviction, self-confidence, moral courage, integrity and common decency.


“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 …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… 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.’ ”


“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.’ ”


The secretary’s words meant for the Naval Academy graduates could just as easily be a solid way to measure the next candidate for the president’s office. Whether President Barack Obama or another candidate has these qualities can only be determined by – and should be determined by – each individual voter.


In the past we have had presidents who possessed many of these qualities but few have exhibited them all.


Let’s hope that as we narrow the list of potential nominees those with real leadership qualities come to the fore and we choose wisely.


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