By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service
May 25, 2007 – Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates urged graduates of the U.S. Naval Academy accepting commissions today into the Navy and Marine Corps to apply the lessons they learned here to become strong, decisive leaders who motivate and inspire their sailors and Marines. Speaking to the Class of 2007 at its graduation and commissioning ceremony, Gates thanked the 1,028 graduating midshipmen for choosing to serve the country at a particularly challenging time in its history.
"Today, you take on the awesome responsibility of protecting and defending the constitution of the United States and the American people," he said. "Today we ask you to make the extraordinary the expected. Today, we ask you to lead free men and women by summoning each to his or her nobility."
Gates noted the midshipmen have studied a lot about leadership during their four years in Annapolis, and said he has come to realize that real leadership is a rare commodity.
He offered his personal insights into what makes a leader, citing vision, integrity, conviction, self-confidence, courage and common decency.
Leadership takes vision, Gates told the midshipmen, and the ability to see beyond immediate tasks and challenges to what's ahead. "You must see what others do not or cannot, and then be prepared to act on your vision," he said.
Real leadership also demands integrity, Gates said, acknowledging with dismay that it's a notion many tend to consider curious and old-fashioned.
"For a real leader, personal values - self-reliance, self-control, honor, truthfulness, morality - are absolute," he said. "These are the building blocks of character, of integrity, and only on that foundation can true leadership be built."
Gates called deep conviction another critical leadership quality. "True leadership is a fire in the mind" that's able to transform and transfix others, he said "It is a strength of purpose and belief in a cause that reaches out to others, touches their hearts, and makes them eager to follow."
A true leader exhibits self-confidence, the secretary said. He emphasized that he wasn't referring to "chest-thumping, strutting egotism," but rather, "a quiet self-assurance that allows a leader to give others both real responsibility and credit for success."
A self-confident leader is able to make decisions, then delegate and trust others to carry them out, he said. In doing so, Gates said, the leader "doesn't cast such a large shadow that no one else can grow."
As essential as vision, integrity, deep conviction and self-confidence are to leadership, they aren't enough to make a leader, he told the midshipmen. "A leader must have the courage to act, often against the will of the crowd," he said.
A true leader works as a team, but also must be willing to buck popular opinion and take an independent stand when it's necessary, the secretary said. "Don't kid yourself," he told the midshipmen. "That takes courage."
As the graduates move on to their Navy and Marine Corps careers, Gates reminded them to apply another quality of real leadership: common decency. A true leader treats everyone - superiors, peers and subordinates alike - with fairness, respect and dignity, he said.
Gates urged the graduates to use their authority as military officers constructively to care for their sailors and Marines and help them improve and advance themselves. This, in turn, will build respect and loyalty, he said.
"Common decency builds respect and, in a democratic society, respect is what prompts people to give their all for a leader, even at personal sacrifice," he said.
Gates thanked the graduating midshipmen for choosing to serve the country at a time their country needs them and their leadership abilities.
He noted that most were high school juniors when the United States came under terrorist attack on Sept. 11, 2001, and all could have chosen an easier, less demanding path.
"You, however, are special, because you are among those who have chosen to deserve, to defend the dreams of others," he said. "And that sets you apart."
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