By Jim Garamone
DoD News, Defense Media Activity
WASHINGTON, Nov. 2, 2014 – You don’t get to be the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff without learning something about leadership along the way.
Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey has been a leader at every military level throughout his 40-year career and he shared some of his insights with civilian and military students at Syracuse University in Central New York on Friday.
Leadship is More Than Giving Orders
Leadership is more than simply ordering people to do something. “You might try to bludgeon your way through, but it doesn’t work well,” the chairman said.
Dempsey gave the students a couple of tools to place in their toolboxes as they prepare for service in national security.
Leaders, he said, must get used to the fact that they are going to be asked to do more than one thing at a time. Leaders have to prioritize and junior leaders cannot rely on senior leaders to always set the agenda. “What is a priority today may not be tomorrow, and you have to be prepared for that,” Dempsey said.
He noted that if he had visited Syracuse last year, no one would be talking about Ebola or Crimea or the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.
Leaders Present Solutions To Problems
He told the students to not simply pass a problem up the chain to the boss, but to pass it with a recommendation. This is just another way to say that leaders have to agile in their thinking and actions.
The chairman discussed risk. “Making decisions as a leader involves risk, and that risk is either manageable or not depending on how you deal with it,” he said. “It’s not a leader’s job to prevent risk, rather it is the leader’s job to enable subordinates to take risks.”
Every action has risk and there is no way to drive risk to zero, he said. Risk should not paralyze action.
Candor is a trait all must have. “If there’s more truth in the hallway, than in the meeting room, you’ve got problems,” Dempsey said.
He urged them to speak truth to power, and for leaders to not be afraid of disagreements.
Dempsey stated that competence and character are needed in equal measure. Leaders can’t have one without the other. “Competence will get you to the table, but character is what keeps you at the table,” he said.
The chairman also discussed humility. He quoted an old saying that “you can get a lot done in Washington if you don’t care who gets credit.” He called it a truism of life in government. “Humility is not thinking less of yourself, it’s thinking less about yourself,” he said. “You should be optimistic, you should be ambitious, you should be self-confident.”
He urged the students to be approachable. “The best of our leaders are extremely approachable,” he said. Put people at ease and listen to what they have to say.
And he urged the students to never stop learning. Abraham Lincoln wrote long before he became president “I will study and prepare, and perhaps my day will come.”
“Commit to be a life-long learner, and if history calls on you, you will be prepared,” he said.
Dempsey ended with a quote from William Butler Yeats: “Talent perceives differences. Genius perceives unity.”
He said that right now the people of the United States perceive the differences among us all too easily. “You can’t miss the differences that separate us,” he said. “Genius perceives unity. Genius is what allows us to come together. That’s what this country does. That’s what sets us apart.”
He told the students to look around the room and note the differences. “I travel all around the world and I would never see an audience like this – men and women, different races, different religions – sitting here. You would never see an audience like this anywhere else in the world,” he said.
“That’s the genius of the American Dream,” he said. “You need to see genius, meaning you need to find unity. And if you do that, this country will be fine.”