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Secretary Shares Leadership Lessons With ROTC Cadets

By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service

DURHAM, N.C., Sept. 29, 2010 – Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates returned to the lectern today, thanking about 300 ROTC cadets at Duke University here for choosing to serve in uniform during wartime, and offering some leadership lessons to take along to the field and fleet.

Click photo for screen-resolution image
Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates speaks to ROTC cadets from Duke University, University of North Carolina, North Carolina State University , and North Carolina Central University at Duke University in Durham, N.C., Sept. 29, 2010. DoD photo by Cherie Cullen

(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.

Gates told the Army, Navy and Air Force ROTC cadets, students at Duke and several neighboring universities, their commitment to serve distinguishes them from their peers “in a profound and honorable way.”

As they undergo their military training, learning various skills and specialties, Gates told the future officers, “fundamentally, what you are really learning is how to be leaders.”

After working for eight different presidents and observing many different leadership styles, Gates said he’s “come to believe that very few people are born great leaders.”

“When it is all said and done, the kind of leader you become is up to you, based on the choices you make,” he said.

Gates urged the future officers to make a conscious choice to lead “with common decency and respect for your subordinates.” It’s a leadership quality “so basic and simple that too often it’s forgotten,” he said, but one he reminds every new general and senior executive he meets at the Pentagon.

The secretary also challenged the cadets to have the moral courage to do “the right thing when it is the hard thing.”

It’s tough to stick your neck out to do what’s right rather than what’s easy, convenient or popular, he told the cadets. “The hardest thing is to stand alone among your peers and senior officers,” he said, a pressure he warned will only get greater as they advance in rank.

As they pursue their military careers, Gates also challenged the cadets to broaden their experience through opportunities once considered “off the beaten path.”

He encouraged them to consider alternative learning experiences to enhance their military education and training: going on to graduate school, becoming foreign area officers, trying a stint as a think tank Fellow, or serving in other branches of government.

“All these experiences will make you a more successful military officer in the 21st century,” he told the cadets.

Gates called “adaptability” one of the greatest attributes the cadets can bring to the military.

He said he often jokes at the Pentagon about the military’s resistance to change. The Army still wants to fight the Soviets at the Fulda Gap, he said. The Navy wants to fight the Battle of Midway all over again. The Marine Corps wants to keep repeating the Inchon Landing. And the Air Force just wants to keep flying, he quipped.

But the services are changing, and will need to continue to adapt to the future, Gates said. He noted a “sea change” for the Air Force with the increasing use of unmanned or “remotely piloted aircraft.” Meanwhile, the Army has evolved from a division-based, non-expeditionary force to a brigade-based, expeditionary force – “and they’ve done it while at war,” he said.

Gates challenged the cadets, soon to become military officers in “a new kind of world, where new capabilities are coming along,” never to lose the ability “to change your thinking and adapt.”

“I think the greatest attribute we can have as a military is adaptability,” he said.

Gates said he keeps himself grounded by remembering to take the job seriously, but not himself. “It’s important to have irreverent people around you – people not afraid to poke a little fun,” he said.

“I think it’s very dangerous to surround yourself with people who tell you what a wonderful person you are,” he said. “I have seen too many people go down that road, and it’s disastrous.”

Gates closed by thanking the cadets for sacrifices they will make as they become leaders, and assured them they’ll have the support they need to succeed.

“I have committed myself and the Department of Defense to ensure, when you are commissioned and deployed, that you will have everything you need to accomplish your mission and come home safely,” he said.

Army Master Sgt. Albert Lampkins, senior military instructor at North Carolina State University, said it felt great for his cadets to hear Gates extol principles he and his fellow cadre work to instill everyday.

He brought 40 of his 170 cadets to the session, selecting those with the highest grades and physical training scores. “Everybody wanted to come,” he said.

Benjamin Eurard, a second-year Air Force ROTC cadet at NC State, called the opportunity to be in the same room as the secretary “a once-in-a-lifetime experience.”

“It’s really a big deal for us as cadets, to have someone this high up in our chain of command come and talk to us,” he said.

Nicholas McVane, who will graduate this year from NC State and be commissioned as an Army second lieutenant, said Gates’ visit shows he takes a personal interest in the young men and women entering the military.

McVane said he is looking forward to applying the leadership lessons he’s learned through ROTC as a military officer. “I wanted to do something more important than myself, and to challenge myself,” he said.

While visiting Duke, Gates also gave a major address about the all-volunteer force – its strengths and challenges – as part of the Ambassador David S. Phillips Family International Lectureship.

He challenged the attendees -- 1,200 in Page Auditorium and another 600 in an overflow room -- to consider the costs of the all-volunteer force – to its members, the military at large and the overwhelming percentage of Americans he said have grown increasingly disconnected from the military that defends them.

Gates also served as guest lecturer for 25 students enrolled in the American Grand Strategy class. The class is part of a program designed to educate the next generation of strategists.

As the former president of Texas A&M University, Gates appeared right at home today at Duke. He lectured earlier this year at all three military academies, but today was his first major address at a civilian university since 2007, when he participated in Kansas State University’s Landon Lecture series.

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Robert M. Gates

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