USA — Leaders Emphasize Importance of Moral Courage, Candor

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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