Several stories have appeared in the media lately that cast the military in a negative light. Cheating has been reported in periodic proficiency tests taken by Air Force Minuteman III missile crews, and similar cheating by the staff has been discovered at the Navy Nuclear Power Training Unit in Charleston, S.C.
Before we become concerned about today’s military culture, we should understand important features of these events. Once the cheating was discovered, it was reported up the chain of command. Corrective action was taken. Cheaters were suspended from their jobs, and their careers were put on hold. Responsible officers were fired – not because they cheated, but because they failed to lead their subordinates to reject cheating.
The secretary of defense and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff instituted a top-down review of military leadership and culture to ensure there is not a systemic problem. If problems are discovered, we can be confident they will be fixed.
The military’s culture of monitoring, accountability and corrective action is working.
More typical of the military’s cultural standards and leadership principles can be found in a speech given earlier this year by Adm. William H. McRaven. He is a Navy SEAL, and he is commander of the U.S. Special Forces Command.
His remarkable career includes combat in Iraq and Afghanistan, culminating in planning and leading the raid that killed Osama bin Laden. As the commander of USSOCOM and in previous joint commands, he has commanded Army Rangers, Green Berets and Navy SEALs.
With this background, McRaven was chosen to speak at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., to the Cadet Class of 2015. The occasion was the 500th day before the cadets are commissioned second lieutenants in the Army and begin their careers of service.
McRaven articulated lessons learned from his years working with the Army. Most lessons are applicable to all institutions, and other lessons provide insight into the military culture.
Excerpts from McRaven:
“I LEARNED FIRST and foremost that your allegiance as an officer is always, always to the nation and to those civilian leaders who were elected by the people, who represent the people. The oath you took is clear: to support and defend the Constitution, not the institution. Not the Army, not the corps, not the division, not the brigade, not the battalion, not the company, not the platoon and not the squad, but the nation.
“I learned that leadership is difficult because it is a human interaction and nothing – nothing – is more daunting, more frustrating more complex than trying to lead men and women in tough times.
“I learned that taking care of soldiers is not about coddling them. It is about challenging them.
“I learned that good officers lead from the front.
“I learned that if you are in combat, move to where the action is the hottest. Find the toughest, most dangerous ... job in your unit and go do it.
“I learned that you won’t get a lot of thanks in return. I learned that you shouldn’t expect it.
“I learned that great leaders know how to fail. Nothing so steels you for battle like failure. If you can’t stomach failure, then you will never be a great leader.
“I learned that great Army officers are risk-takers, but the greatest risk is not on the battlefield, but in standing up for what’s right.
“All Army officers are expected to take risks in battle. The truly great officers know that real victory is achieved when men and women of character take professional risks and challenge the weak-kneed, the faint of heart, the indecisive or the bullies.
“I learned that the great officers are equally good at following as they are at leading. Following is one of the most underrated
aspects of leadership, and each of you will be asked to follow someone else.
“I learned that the greatest privilege the Army can bestow upon you is to give you the opportunity to lead the magnificent men and women under your command. These soldiers are not without their challenges. But, when the chips are down – I mean really down – your soldiers will be there, and they will inspire you with their courage, their sense of duty, their leadership, their love and their respect.
“I learned that whether you serve four years or 40, you will never, ever regret your decision to have joined the United States Army.
“So what has this sailor learned? That there is no more noble calling in the world than to be a soldier in the United States Army.”
MCRAVEN’S INSPIRATIONAL principles of leadership are distilled from his 37 years of distinguished service to our country, in peacetime and in war. These are the cultural and leadership standards our military aspires to, and works diligently to attain.
McRaven, the cadets he addressed, and the men and women they lead are the reasons our military is the best in the world, and the most trusted American institution. They provide important lessons and role models for other American organizations. We are immensely fortunate they serve us.
(The writer is a retired U.S. Navy officer. He lives and writes in Savannah.)