Robert Gates is the 22nd US Secretary of Defense. He has served 8 US Presidents, was an officer in the US Air Force, his history with the CIA ranged from an intelligence operator to the Director of the Agency, and he even served as a college president along the way. Regardless of your opinion of Mr. Gates, there is no dispute that he has spent the majority of his life in leadership positions and is thus very qualified to put forth opinions as to what it takes to be a great leader. Rather than comment on his positions and perspectives, I’ll let Mr. Gates’s words speak for themselves. In the text that follows I have excerpted text from his May 23rd commencement speech at West Point:

“Though the tools and tactics of soldiering have changed, the basic principles of soldiering and leadership certainly have not. Now, this former Air Force lieutenant and CIA officer cannot pretend to offer you advice on soldiering. However, as someone who is now working for his eighth president, I can say that leadership is something that I have observed and thought about for a good long time. I’ve come to believe that few people are born great leaders. When all is said and done, the kind of leader you become is up to you, based on the choices you make. And in the time remaining, I’d like to talk about some of those choices, and how those choices will be shaped by the realities of this dangerous new century.

I would start with something I tell all the new generals and civilian executives that I meet with at the Pentagon. It is a leadership quality that is really basic and simple – but so basic and simple that too often it is forgotten: and that is the importance, as you lead, of doing so with common decency and respect towards your subordinates. Harry Truman had it right when he observed that one of the surest ways to judge someone is how well – or poorly – he treats those who “can’t talk back.”

In this country, going back to its earliest days, the American soldier has been drawn from the ranks of free citizens, which has implications for how those troops should be led and treated.

Two anecdotes from our country’s founding capture the independent thinking of the American soldier and the greatness of the Army officer who led them. During the Revolution, a man in civilian clothes rode past a redoubt being repaired. The commander was shouting orders but not helping. When the rider asked why, the supervisor of the work detail retorted, “Sir, I am a corporal!” The stranger apologized, dismounted, and helped repair the redoubt. When he was done, he turned toward the supervisor and said, “Mr. Corporal, next time you have a job like this and not enough men to do it, go to your Commander-in-Chief and I will come and help you again.” Too late, the corporal recognized George Washington. The power of example in leadership.

On another occasion, Washington was making his rounds and came across a Private John Brantley drinking some stolen wine. Brantley invited Washington to have a drink with him. The general declined, saying, “boy, you have no time for drinking wine.” Brantley responded, “Damn your proud soul – you’re above drinking with soldiers.” Washington turned back, dismounted, and said, “Come, I will [have] a drink with you.” The jug was passed around, and as the general re-mounted, Brantley said, “Now, I’ll be damned if I don’t spend the last drop of my heart’s blood for you.” A lesson in the independence of the American soldier and his loyalty, when treated with respect and decency.

In a novel about ancient Greece, the warrior Alcibiades is asked how to lead-free men, and he responds: “By being better and thus commanding their emulation.” “How to lead-free men? Only by this means the summoning of each to his nobility.”

Treating soldiers decently also extends to making sure that they – and their families – are properly taken care of – body, mind, and soul. It is the families who often bear the harshest brunt of a soldier’s overseas combat tour, particularly when it is a second or third or fourth deployment. And as a small unit leader, you must create a climate where those soldiers who may be suffering from post-traumatic stress or other mental illness are willing to step forward and get the help they deserve.

A second fundamental quality of leadership is doing the right thing when it is the hard thing – in other words, integrity. Too often we read about examples in business and government of leaders who start out with the best of intentions and somehow go astray.

I’ve found that more often than not, what gets people into trouble is not the obvious case of malfeasance – taking the big bribe or cheating on an exam. Often it is the less direct, but no less damaging, temptation to look away or pretend something didn’t happen, or that certain things must be okay because other people are doing them; when deep down if you look hard enough, you know that’s not true. To take that stand – to do the hard right, over the easier, more convenient, or more popular wrong – requires courage.

Courage comes in different forms. There is the physical courage of the battlefield, which this institution and this army possess beyond measure. Consider, for example, the story of Lieutenant Nicholas Eslinger, Class of 2007. He was leading his platoon through Samarra, Iraq when an enemy fighter threw a grenade in their midst. Eslinger jumped on the grenade to shield his men. When the grenade didn’t go off, the platoon leader threw it back across the wall. And then it exploded. At the time of this incident, then-Second Lieutenant Eslinger was only 16 months out of West Point. He would later receive the Silver Star.

But, in addition to battlefield bravery, there is also moral courage, often harder to find. In business, in universities, in the military, in any big institution, there is a heavy emphasis on teamwork. And, in fact, the higher up you go, the stronger the pressure to smooth off the rough edges, paper over problems, close the proverbial ranks, and stay on message. The hardest thing you may ever be called upon to do is stand alone among your peers and superior officers. To stick your neck out after discussion becomes consensus, and consensus ossifies into groupthink.

One of my greatest heroes is George Marshall, whose portrait hangs over my desk in the Pentagon. As I said here last April, Marshall was probably the exemplar of combining unshakeable loyalty with having the courage and integrity to tell superiors things they didn’t want to hear – from “Black Jack” Pershing to Franklin Delano Roosevelt. As it turns out, Marshall’s integrity and courage were ultimately rewarded professionally. In a perfect world, that should always happen. Sadly, it does not, and I will not pretend there is no risk. But that does not make taking that stand any less necessary for the sake of our Army and our country.

The moral principles of leadership I’ve just discussed are timeless – they apply to any military leader in any generation. So do a range of other choices you will face about the leader you aspire to become. I refer to those relating to the kind of judgment, wisdom, and mental skills – the intellectual attributes, if you will – that will be most needed to be successful as an Army leader in the 21st century.

It has always been one of the hallmarks of the U.S. military to push decision making down to the lowest possible level. In Iraq and Afghanistan, we rely on our junior- and mid-level combat leaders to make judgments – tactical, strategic, cultural, ethical – of the kind that much more senior commanders would have made a generation ago.

The Army has always needed agile and adaptive leaders with a broad perspective and range of skills. Now, in an era where we face a full spectrum of conflict – where high-intensity combat, stability, train-and-equip, humanitarian, and high-end conventional operations may be occurring in rapid sequence or simultaneously – we cannot succeed without military leaders who are just as full spectrum in their thinking. We will not be able to train or educate you to have all the right answers – as one might find in a manual – but you should look for those experiences and pursuits in your career that will help you at least ask the right questions.

Maxwell Taylor – who was an Asia specialist in the 1930s before becoming the famed commander of the 101st Airborne Division and later Army chief of staff and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff – once observed of his fellow academy grads that, “The ‘goats’ of my acquaintance who have leapfrogged their classmates are men who continue their intellectual growth after graduation.”

To this end, in addition to the essential troop commands and staff assignments, you should consider, and in fact embrace, opportunities that in the past were considered off the beaten path, if not a career dead end. Those might include further study at graduate school, teaching at this or another first-rate educational institution, being a fellow at a think tank, advising indigenous security forces, becoming a foreign area specialist, or service in other parts of the government – all being experiences that will make you a more successful military leader in the 21st century.

In 1974, when I left the CIA mother ship to take a staff job at the National Security Council, I was told by my boss at Langley that there probably would not be a job there for me when I returned. My career as a CIA officer was considered over. So you never know when taking some risks in your career will pay significant future dividends.

It is important to remember that none of what I have talked about these past few minutes is alien to the best traditions of Army leadership – particularly at times of great peril for this country:

  • Grant and Sherman were not exactly spat and polish soldiers – and in fact left the military for a time before they returned to lead the Union Army to victory.
  • George Marshall spent 15 years as a lieutenant and never commanded a division; and
  • Eisenhower spent years toiling in obscurity as what General MacArthur later called a “clerk” in the Philippines.

Just over a half-century ago, no less an Army institution than General Eisenhower said here at West Point: “Without the yeast of pioneers, the United States Army, or any other organization…cannot escape degeneration into ritualistic worship of the status quo.” Keep Ike’s admonition in mind in the years ahead – be a pioneer in the assignments you take, the learning you pursue, the assumptions you question.

Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, reflecting on his service as a Union soldier in the Civil War, later said that “in our youth, our hearts were touched with fire.” I hope that as a result of coming to this place, in the instruction you have received, and in the friendships, you have formed, that your hearts, minds, and spirits have been touched in a way that will prepare you for the trial by fire that may await you.

In closing, as I said last April, know that I think of each of you as I would my own son or daughter. I feel a deep, personal responsibility for each of you. I have committed myself and the department I lead to see that you have everything you need to accomplish your mission and to come home safely to your families. Know, also, that your countrymen are grateful for your service, and will be praying for your safety and your success.

A final thought. We all seek a world at peace. After each war, we always hope we fought the final war, the war to end all wars. I believe that such hopes ignore all of human history. I believe that for so long as we seek to be free men and women, for so long as the bright light of liberty shines, there will be those whose sole ambition, whose sole obsession, will be to extinguish that light. I believe that only strength, eternal vigilance, and the continuing courage and commitment of warriors like you – and your willingness to serve at all costs – will keep the sacred light of American liberty burning: A beacon to all the world.

You will shortly take an oath to protect and defend the Constitution and us, the American people. The nation stands in awe of you. And I salute you.”