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Future Leaders Must Follow Conscience, Gates Says

By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, April 22, 2008 – Success on today’s and tomorrow’s battlefields requires military leaders guided by conscience who refuse to be “yes men,” Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said in a speech last night to future Army officers at the U.S. Military Academy.

Gates told the cadets at West Point, N.Y., that he considers principled dissent a sign of a healthy organization, but he also encouraged loyalty among the dissenters.

The Army will need leaders of “uncommon agility, resourcefulness and imagination, leaders willing and able to think and act creatively and decisively in a different kind of world and a different kind of conflict than we have prepared for over the last six decades,” Gates said.

But one factor remains constant, Gates continued. “We will still need men and women in uniform to call things as they see them and tell their subordinates and superiors alike what they need to hear, not what they want to hear.”

Gates pressed his point to the cadets, some to become commissioned officers next month.

“Listen very carefully,” he said. “If, as an officer, you don’t tell blunt truths or create an environment where candor is encouraged, then you’ve done yourself and the institution a disservice.”

Gates noted that during 16 months as defense secretary, he’s changed his stance on several key issues because general officers disagreed with him and persuaded him of better courses of action.

He said he also seeks ground truth from junior- and mid-grade soldiers and officers during his travels to the front lines.

“Their input has been invaluable and shaped my thinking and decisions, as well,” he said. “All in senior positions would be well advised to listen to their enlisted soldiers, (noncommissioned officers), and company- and field-grade officers. They are the ones on the front line, and they know the real story.”

Telling the real story has never been easy, Gates conceded. He drew an example from history, sharing the story of George C. Marshall -- an Army captain in late 1917 -- telling Gen. John J. Pershing directly that his headquarters hadn’t provided the training manual the U.S. military staff in France needed to succeed.

Rather than firing Marshall from his staff and sending him to the front lines as many expected, Pershing came to rely on him as a trusted advisor, Gates said.

General Marshall showed the same audacity 20 years later when he became the lone voice telling President Roosevelt he disagreed with plans to place building the Army an a back burner. Roosevelt’s Cabinet was sure Marshall would go, but instead, he became Army chief of staff.

And even when the two men clashed, Roosevelt could always count on Marshall’s candor and commitment to making a decision work, even if he disagreed with it, Gates said.

This leads to another lesson by example, Gates said. When Roosevelt made a decision regarding support for Britain that Marshall disagreed with, the general didn’t go behind the president’s back, trying to curry favor for his own viewpoints.

“There were no overtures to friendly committee chairmen, no leaks to sympathetic reporters, no ghostwritten editorials in newspapers, no coalition building with advocacy groups,” Gates said. “Marshall and his colleagues made the policy work.”

Gates conceded that in the years since, senior offices often have been tempted to “do end runs around the civilian leadership,” particularly regarding major weapons-system purchases.

“This temptation should and must be resisted,” he said.

Marshall represented “the textbook model for the way military officers should handle disagreements with superiors,” he said. “Your duties as an officer are: to provide blunt and candid advice always, to keep disagreements private, and to implement faithfully decisions that go against you.”

Gates called these principles “a solid starting point for dealing with issues of candor, dissent and duty.” But he acknowledged that applying them can be pretty complicated, especially during irregular and difficult conflicts like those seen today in Iraq and Afghanistan.

In these conflicts, the American public must be able to rely on its military leaders’ candor and credibility to gauge how a conflict is going and if it should continue.

Gates said he’s been impressed that the Army’s professional journals provide a forum in which some of the brightest, most innovative officers can critique the way the Army operates or decisions by its civilian or military leaders.

“I believe this is a sign of institutional vitality and health and strength,” he said.

He encouraged the cadets to “take on the mantle of fearless, thoughtful but loyal dissent when the situation calls for it.” Senior leaders, in turn, should “embrace such dissent as a healthy dialogue” and protect those willing to express divergent views.

West Point focuses on teamwork, consensus building and collaboration. “Yet make no mistake, the time will come when you must stand alone in making a difficult, unpopular decision,” Gates warned the cadets.

That may mean challenging superiors’ opinions, telling them it’s not possible to get a job done with the available time and resources, or standing up to inaccuracies when hearing them uttered.

“There will be moments when your entire career is at risk,” Gates said. “What will you do? What will you do?”

The answers aren’t easy, he said. “but if you follow the dictates of your conscience and the courage of your convictions, while being respectfully candid with your superiors while encouraging candor in others, you will be in good stead for the challenges you will face as officers and leaders in the years ahead,” he said.

Gates noted that the cadets will soon be in leadership positions, making decisions in a “captain’s war” in which junior officers’ judgment and initiative can have strategic ramifications. He urged them to draw on their consciences as they face that huge responsibility in challenging circumstances.

“Defend your integrity as you would your life,” Gates said. “If you do this, I am confident that, when you face those tough dilemmas, you will, in fact, know the right thing to do.”

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Robert M. Gates

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