By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service
ANNAPOLIS, Md., May 27, 2011 – Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates delivered his last commencement speech as defense secretary today, calling on graduates at the U.S. Naval Academy to become the best leaders possible, setting the leadership example and putting their people and organizations above their own interests.
Gates thanked the 1,006 graduates assembled on the field at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium here for choosing to serve their country and fellow citizens in uniform.
“In everything you did here, … you have grown together as a team,” he said. “But there has also been something bigger uniting you: your willingness to take on a difficult and dangerous path in the service of others.”
The secretary noted that the midshipmen entered the academy at the height of the Iraq war, when casualties were at an all-time high and “prospects of success uncertain at best.” Meanwhile, the Taliban were making a comeback in Afghanistan, and Osama bin Laden, “history’s most notorious terrorist,” was still at large.
“As a result of the skill and sacrifice of countless young warriors and patriots -- many of them graduates of this institution -- I am proud to say that we face a different set of circumstances today,” he said. “Iraq has a real chance at a peaceful and democratic future. In Afghanistan, the Taliban momentum has been halted and reversed. And Osama bin Laden is finally where he belongs” -- a statement that sent the entire stadium into wild applause.
“While many people witness history, those who step forward to serve in a time of crisis have a place in history,” Gates told the graduating class. “As of today, you join the long line of patriots in a noble calling. By your service, you will have a chance to leave your mark on history.”
Citing President Theodore Roosevelt’s recognition that leaders must live up to the highest standards to raise the level for everyone around them, Gates said the Class of 2011 members can never be content to simply be “good citizens.”
“You must be great citizens,” he said. “In everything you do, you must always make sure that you live up to the highest personal and professional standards of duty, service and honor -- the values of the Navy, the values of the American armed forces, the values of the best traditions of America.”
Gates urged the graduates, when called on as leaders to defend the United States in faraway lands, to “hold your values and your honor close to your heart.”
Gates cited his own public service experience in the Air Force, CIA, White House and Pentagon, and said he’s had the opportunity to observe many great leaders along the way.
“From this I learned that real leadership is a rare and precious commodity,” he said, sharing some of the qualities he said make true leaders.
“Great leaders must have vision,” he said, “the ability to get your eyes off your shoelaces at every level of rank and responsibility and see beyond the day-to-day tasks and problems.”
Leaders must be able “to look beyond tomorrow and discern a world of possibilities and potential” as they take their organization to a higher level of excellence, he said.
Leaders must be driven by a deep sense of conviction, Gates said. “It is a strength of purpose and belief that reaches out to others, touches their hearts and makes them eager to follow,” he said.
Leaders must have self-confidence -- but not “the chest-thumping, strutting egotism we see and read about all the time,” Gates added. Instead, true leaders must possess a quiet self-assurance that enables them “to give others both real responsibility and real credit for success [and] the ability to stand in the shadow and let others receive attention and accolades,” he said.
“A leader is able to make decisions, but then delegate and trust others to make things happen” while holding them accountable, Gates continued. “The bottom line: a self-confident leader doesn’t cast such a large shadow that no one else can grow,” he said.
Leaders also must possess courage -- moral as well as physical, the secretary said. He called on the new officers to have the courage to chart a new course, do what is right and not just what is popular, to be willing to stand alone and act and, as military officers, to “speak truth to power.”
Among the greatest challenges they will face, Gates said, will be those times when they must stand alone and call out a wrong or disagree with popular opinion. “Don’t kid yourself,” the secretary warned, “that takes courage.”
An essential quality of real leadership is integrity, a characteristic Gates said is too often seen as outdated or not applicable. “For a real leader, personal virtues -- self-reliance, self control, honor, truthfulness, morality -- are absolute,” he told the graduates. “These are the building blocks of character, of integrity -- and only on that foundation can real leadership be built.”
Gates urged the graduates to exercise what he called a true measure of leadership: common decency in treating others, regardless of their station. He challenged them to threat others with fairness and respect, and to use their authority to protect and champion those under their charge and their families.
“Common decency builds respect and, in a democratic society, respect is what prompts people to give their all for a leader, even at great personal sacrifice,” he said.
The qualities of leadership don’t emerge overnight or after assuming important responsibilities, Gates told the graduates. “These qualities have their roots in the small decisions you have made here at the academy and will make early in your career,” he said. “And [they] must be strengthened all along the way to allow you to resist the temptation of self before service.”
Gates warned that the real measure of leadership comes when one is confronted with life’s inevitable failures or disappointments.
“If at those times you hold true to your standards, then you will always succeed, if only in knowing you stayed true and honorable,” he said. “In the final analysis, what really matters are not the failures and disappointments themselves, but how you respond.”
Navy Secretary Ray Mabus joined Gates in congratulating the new graduates and welcoming them to military service. Citing the Navy’s and Marine Corps’ busy operational tempos, Mabus told the class, “you will need all the training you have gotten here.”
Throughout their service, the young officers will be held to a higher standard and called on more frequently to sacrifice than their civilian peers, he said. “That is who you are,” he said. “That is why you are sitting here today.”
Mabus called on the graduates to take their academy lessons with them as they continue growing as leaders in the fleet and Corps.
Leadership has to be earned “day after hard day,” Mabus told the class.
“Go earn it,” he said. “Earn the respect of your sailors and Marines. Earn it by leading from the front. Earn it by the way you treat those you lead and the way you treat their families. Earn it by listening and not just to those above you. Earn it.”