Fellow William and Mary alum and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates gave a simply smashing commencement address at the Air Force Academy this year:
The world you are entering is much more complicated than it was when I was an Air Force officer during the Cold War. You will not always know who your enemies are. You will not always be able to understand their motivations. And you will not always be able to rely exclusively on technology to win battles or wars.
The challenges you face will test both your spirit and your resolve. At the Academy you have undoubtedly heard much about what it takes to be a leader. Well, the time for words has now passed. From this day forward, you will have to demonstrate that you can live up to the standards you were taught. That you can perform in a military that is unique in the world in terms of how heavily it relies on the judgment and integrity of its junior officers.
I can tell you that it will rarely, if ever, be easy. Far too often today we see the results of a failure of leadership at too many levels – whether in the home, in schools, in business, in government, and yes, even in the armed forces. It certainly does not have to do with the natural capabilities of our leaders. They are for the most part smart, educated, driven. They did not rise to positions of leadership by accident – but by demonstrating a capacity, and a willingness, to lead.
But the ability to lead carries with it great responsibilities – for it is just as easy, if not easier, to lead people down the wrong path. It is easy to try to cover your tracks if you make a mistake.
It is easy to give your superiors good news even when you know it is not warranted. It is all too easy to sacrifice the long-term interests of the service and the nation for short-term personal gains.
All these things are easy, but they’re wrong. Moral quandaries of the sort you will face are made more difficult by the realities of the world today.
We live in an age where friends and enemies alike will seek out and focus on any and all mistakes made under great stress; where the irregular battlefield will present life-and-death decisions, often with no good choices. Where the slightest error in judgment – or even the perception of an error – can be magnified many times over on the Internet and on TV and circulated around the globe in seconds.
You will face enemies who possess no conscience and no remorse – who will lie about and distort your actions, and who will purposefully blur the line between civilians and combatants.
Your actions will also be under scrutiny by those who support you – by the Congress, the press, and by everyday citizens. And make no mistake about it – your supporters at home will be watching – and setting their expectations high.
There is only one way to conduct yourself in this world – only one way to remain always above reproach. For a real leader, the elements of personal virtue – self-reliance, self-control, honor, truthfulness, morality – are absolute. They are absolute even when doing what is right may bring embarrassment or bad publicity to your unit or the service or to you. Even when doing what is right may require sacrificing personal allegiances and friendships for professional duty and ethics – for personal honor.
Those lucky flyboys.