RAMSTEIN AIR BASE, Germany, June 9, 2006 - Thirty-nine years to the day after his U.S. Naval Academy commissioning in 1967, Gen. Peter Pace, the first Marine to become chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, still isn't ready to call himself a good leader.
"If you think you're a good leader, then you're probably not," Pace told American Forces Press Service during his June 7 return flight to Washington after an official trip to Guam, Singapore and India.
Good leadership is something you have to strive for every day, Pace said. Once you begin to believe you've achieved it, he said, "You start to get sloppy about paying attention."
After following Pace around for a week, it's evident that he's paying attention. He was with commanders in Guam about preparations for moving 8,000 Marines and their families from Okinawa, with nine chiefs of defense as well as ministers of defense at an Asian security conference in Singapore, and with military and government leaders in India. Even with this jam-packed schedule of briefings and high-level meetings, Pace never missed a chance to thank the U.S. troops he met along the way.
As he toured Naval Base Guam by mini-bus, Pace jumped from his seat to pay an impromptu call on a formation of sailors gathered outside USS City of Corpus Christi. "I just wanted to take this opportunity to say thank you for what you do here," he told the assembled crewmembers. Later in the day, he greeted B-2 Stealth bomber crewmembers on a rotation from Whitman Air Force Base, Mo.
In Singapore and India, Pace met with the Marine Corps Detachment security guards serving at the U.S. embassies there.
Even during a short refueling stop here on the way back to Washington, Pace and his wife, Lynne, dashed off to nearby Landstuhl Regional Medical Center to meet with wounded troops from Iraq and Afghanistan.
Wherever he went, the chairman shook hands, chatted with the troops, thanked them for their service and presented his signature Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff coin. At Landstuhl, Pace surprised the hospital staff, gathered in a corner in an attempt to stay out of the way, by walking up to them and extending the same courtesies.
"That special recognition means a lot to them," said Army Col. Carol Gilmore, deputy commander for nursing. "It gives them that little boost and makes them feel special."
Pace said he's a firm believer in taking care of his people and letting them know they're appreciated. It's a lesson he learned early in his career by watching senior officers. "The guys I remember are the ones who didn't just walk through the cordon," he said.
But a good leader doesn't go around thanking people for a job well done, then assume that's finished and move on to other things.
"It's about thanking people every day," Pace said. "It takes so little time to look them in the eye and say, 'Thank you for what you're doing.'"
Ultimately, Pace said, "it probably does more good for me than for them."
Pace reflected on all he's learned since his graduation and commissioning ceremony, when he wore his Marine Corps uniform for the first time. "I didn't have a clue if I could be a good Marine, but I wanted to try," he said.
As his career advanced, Pace said he developed his leadership style largely by watching and learning from his senior officers. Most were great leaders themselves and strong role models, he said, and even one officer who wasn't provided positive leadership lessons.
"Watch other leaders and emulate the things you like," Pace said to those seeking leadership advice. "But don't assume that you can do it the way they do. Try it, but if it doesn't feel natural, try something else. It has to be right for you."
Soft-spoken by nature, Pace said he quickly realized that while some people used it effectively to instill discipline, "yelling and screaming didn't work for me." Similarly, he didn't see much value in growling at someone who already felt badly about making a mistake.
He recalled a time when a senior officer told Pace he was disappointed in something he'd observed in Pace's unit. "He might as well have torn my heart out," the chairman said. "I felt so bad that I had let him down."
Pace adopted the style as his own. To this day, when he sees someone do something he's not happy about, "I just look them in the eye and tell them I'm disappointed," he said.
On his own staff, Pace doesn't believe in belaboring minor transgressions. When someone makes a misstep he tells them they're fired, then quickly tells them that their punishment is to be immediately rehired. Staff members call the lighter approach an effective way at getting the point across and ensuring everyone involved understands that the situation could have been handled better.
Of Pace's long list of military experiences, none has had as much lasting impact as his very first assignment, in Vietnam. Pace called his time as a rifle platoon leader, then assistant operations officer for the 2d Battalion, 5th Marines, 1st Marine Division, "a defining year" in his career and life. "I came to genuinely value and love the guys who served," he said.
President Bush noted that devotion to the troops when he nominated Pace to replace retiring Air Force Gen. Richard Myers as Joint Chiefs chairman.