By Fred W. Baker III
American Forces Press Service
June 11, 2009 - Flanked by rows of professors cloaked in traditional academic regalia, the nation's top military officer offered one final, brief lecture to a group of graduating senior military officers at the National Defense University here today. But Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Navy Adm. Mike Mullen stood at the steps of the Defense Department's premier scholarly institution offering not a lesson on international security, national strategy or campaign planning, but instead a discourse on leadership.
As the nation draws down from the war in Iraq and refocuses its efforts on the war in Afghanistan, Mullen told the 582 graduates from three of the university's top leadership colleges that the skills they've learned over the past year now have a "great and immediate purpose."
"Not just to write strategy or think through problems, but to lead," Mullen said. The graduates, he added, would set the example in the field, and their leadership would determine the success of the U.S. military.
The admiral broke his lesson into three parts, noting that leading commanders, senior enlisted servicemembers and junior officers each need different types and levels of leadership.
Commanders, he said, want the opportunity to make a difference, accomplish the mission and innovate along the way. "They need to be able to question like you did, and debate like you," the admiral said. "Their ability and desire to think critically will begin with you as their leader. And like you, their opinions matter."
Opinions and advice matter most when those giving them are able to be held accountable, he noted, and change is best led by people in the fight who set the example from within.
"And by giving them credit for their ideas, and involving them in your decisions as you lead them," said he added.
Few in the military believe as fervently in its traditions and in taking care of families and troops as senior enlisted leaders, Mullen said. "What we can never do is take these leaders, or their convictions, for granted," he said, as they work to keep up with a new generation, mentoring them and ensuring they grow in their profession.
"Our senior enlisted best understand our troops, the sources of their motivations, and their hopes for the future," Mullen said. "You may lead your units from a strategic level, but these professionals really lead your units. You should measure your commitment by theirs."
Junior officers are the future of the military and the future of the nation's security, he said. How they are grown in the service is the key to the military's success.
"If you break their will, extinguish their passion, or squelch their dreams, you will be taking something that does not belong to you," Mullen said. "They want responsibility. They want the chance to make good and to do good. They want you to care – not for them, but about them."
Mullen said this group has been hit hardest by frequent deployments in the past seven years. But in those deployments, he added, they have gained insight that is valuable to the military and to the nation.
"They may be tired, but they are wise beyond their years," the chairman said. "It's up to us to keep as much of that wisdom as we can inside the institution, where we need it most. Their decision to stay or leave is a matter of national security."
Mullen said military leaders have yet to realize the full impact that the wars have had on troops and their families. He implored the senior officers to listen to troops and families, and to help to reduce the stigma of getting help for war-related stress.
Finally, Mullen asked the group to advance the fundamentals of learning they have enjoyed in their classes at the university.
"You will recall how you were inspired to think critically and to question without fear to seek out radically different solutions, and to voice them without reprisal, to read widely and deeply, and to examine without end and grow intellectually," Mullen said. "What I ask is this -- pass it on."
Those graduating today were from the College of International Affairs, the Industrial College of the Armed Forces and the National War College, all at the university at Fort McNair. More than half are military officers, and the rest are federal government civilians, international students and private-sector senior civilians.
This was the university's largest graduating class, officials said.