WASHINGTON, Jan. 11, 2011 — Telling the boss what he or she wants to hear is easy. But what are service members to do when asked to provide professional advice or a recommendation, knowing it runs contrary to what the senior leader wants or expects?
That’s the dilemma two retired generals discussed yesterday as they shared their own experiences at a military professionalism conference organized at the request of Navy Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates has said he counts candor and moral courage among the essential qualities for 21st-century military leaders. Speaking last spring at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., he cited several Naval Academy graduates who rose to greatness largely because they recognized the need to sometimes buck institutional resistance.
“One of the key reasons they were successful was because they were willing to speak truth to power — willing to tell superiors what they needed to hear, not what they wanted to hear,” Gates told the midshipmen.
Mullen, speaking last spring at the U.S. Air Force Academy graduation and commissioning in Colorado Springs, Colo., challenged the new officers to be leaders demonstrating loyalty, integrity and imagination as they live up to their commissioning oath. But he warned them that their loyalty should never be blind.
“Few things are more important to an organization than people who have the moral courage to question the direction in which the organization is headed, and then the strength of character to support whatever final decisions are made,” the chairman told the cadets.
Speaking at the National Defense University’s conference on “Introspection and Reflection on Basic Tenets and the Way Ahead” yesterday, retired Air Force Lt. Gen. Jack L. Rives and retired Army Lt. Gen. Julius W. Becton, Jr., shared their own experiences of what it’s like to offer guidance that doesn’t necessarily track with what the higher-ups want.
Rives, the Air Force’s judge advocate general after the 9/11 terror attacks, played a pivotal role in a broad range of legal deliberations and activities regarding the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, including detainee operations.
Retired Army Lt. Gen. Julius W. Becton, Jr., who rose through the ranks from a private serving in a segregated Army during World War II to commander of VII Corps during the Cold War, helped pave the way to fully integrate women into the military.
Both found themselves negotiating difficult waters and sometimes bucking the establishment along the way.
Rives kicked off yesterday’s panel discussion by reciting the oath every officer takes when receiving a military commission. “That is really all the guidance you need,” he told the attendees, key leaders of the military education and training community. Pausing, he added with a smile, “Of course, the devil is in the details.”
Military members have a responsibility to remain apolitical even when reporting to political figures, Rives said, reiterating a key point made earlier in the day by Mullen as well as retired Air Force Gen. Richard B. Myers, former Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman.
“It’s important to realize that your oath is to [protect and defend] the Constitution,” Rives said. “It is not to a political party. It is not to an administration. It is not to a person…We owe our allegiance and loyalty to the country and its Constitution.”
When testifying before Congress, Rives said he knew he was bound by a promise to provide his best military guidance and when asked, his personal opinion, even when it didn’t jive with the administration’s position.
“You have to live with yourself. You look at yourself in the mirror each day,” he said. “So you shouldn’t be motivated by, ‘What is this going to do for or to my career if I give my boss certain advice. Your obligation is to give the best advice possible.”
When he shares that conviction with younger officers and advises them to do what they believe is right, Rives said they sometimes balk. “They say, ‘It’s easy for you to say, you’re a three-star general,’” he told the group. “I thought about it and said, ‘Really, it’s easy for you to do as well, because you have to live with yourself. You look at yourself in the mirror each day. And you shouldn’t be motivated by, ‘What is this going to do for or to my career?’”
Rives said he knew during his career he’d given his commanders advice they didn’t like hearing. “But in almost every case, later they showed some appreciation for me telling them what I believed was my best advice,” he said. “So, ‘To thine own self be true’ is what I have to say.”
Becton echoed Rives’ conviction as he shared 12 basic principles that formulated his philosophy of command. Among them: Integrity is non-negotiable. Challenge assertions. And disagreement is not disrespect.
These proved invaluable as he charted the course in helping the Army move beyond isolated billets for the women who were just beginning to enter the military ranks and policies that sounded good on paper but simply didn’t apply in real life.
“A good approach is, ‘How do you feel looking at the person in the mirror in the morning when you have made a decision?’” Becton said. “If you can live with that, I say, fine. If that causes you a problem, maybe you ought to go back and take another look.”
Asked during a question-and-answer period about the repeal of the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” law that had prohibited gays and lesbians from serving openly in the military, Rives offered a response as direct and unvarnished as those he had challenged the audience to present their leaders.
A law is a law and military members must obey it, he said, regardless of their personal feelings about it.
“If it is a legal requirement, they have no choice but to comply,” he said. “If you have a member of the military who feels strongly that they cannot serve in the military because the military will permit someone who is a declared homosexual to serve openly, then their decision will [have] to be to leave the military.”
U.S. Department of Defense
Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense (Public Affairs)
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