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Gen. Dempsey's Remarks at the National Defense University Graduation

By General Martin E. Dempsey
Fort Leslie J. McNair, Washington, D.C. —
GENERAL MARTIN E. DEMPSEY: Well, it is a – it is a distinct honor to be here today to help launch you into the rest of your careers, a career that I can’t predict for you, that you can’t predict for yourself, but one which will certainly challenge you. And as I mentioned to some of you when I had the chance to come over here and speak with you, I think the nation is in good hands, and I say that because of the men and women who I see passing through the doors of this great place, the National Defense University. We’re going to ask a lot of you; you’ll deliver. And just – I remember this day with some clarity – (laughter) – albeit 16 years ago. We got pretty lucky with the weather today. I think everybody up here would certainly agree with that. And maybe that’s a poor – a good thing to comment. As the Navy says, you know, “Fair winds and following seas” or “Fair seas and following winds.” (Laughter, applause.)
I would – I will say to – you know, the president said – that is to say, Ambassador McEldowney said, choose wisely, my friends. That was her message to you. I would add only, stay thirsty, my friends. (Laughter.)
You can chalk that one up to jet lag. (Laughter.) I got here – I flew in last night from the – from the Asia-Pacific after spending about 10 days out there with Secretary Panetta explaining our new defense strategy, something I know that interests all of you. You might think that I’d be a bit fatigued after having had two Wednesdays, because that’s what happens, of course, but being here to see you off is very much like a – as we send you off to your wings and your fleets, your departments or your agencies, it’s very much like a good strong cup of coffee, and I should be good at least through about 1500 this afternoon. But I promise you I won’t be still here at 1500 this afternoon. (Laughter.)
It is great to be back here at historic Fort McNair and here at the National Defense University for what I remember as the last day of the hardest year off of my life. (Laughter, applause.) I actually hope that’s true. We don’t talk to you about that at the beginning of the year because you’re – (laughter) – but I do hope that you have had some time for yourselves and for your families.
Now, if you’re like me, I suspect that many of you in the crowd have felt challenged through this year, maybe even a bit overwhelmed at one point or another. But somehow, in between devising strategy and trying not to pull a hamstring or anything – (laughter) – I suspect that you made some pretty good friends along the way, and that’s important. In fact, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt once wrote, “If civilization is to survive, we must cultivate the science of human relationships, the ability of all peoples of all kinds to live together in the same world at peace.”
Now, FDR knew a thing or two about ensuring the survival of civilization. But he didn’t come up with that strategy to save the free world by happenstance or overnight or in a vacuum. It was the result of months and years of encouraging dialogue and debate among leaders who, as a result, got to know each other fairly well and learned to play off each other’s strengths as well as insecurities. He created relationships born of interest and ultimately, as Nancy McEldowney said, underpinned by trust. As senior leaders, you’ll find it increasingly important to practice the science of human relationships. As you become involved in making strategy, you’ll need to nurse your relationships to make that strategy work. It’s also important for you to model that in and among your subordinates and provide them with opportunities to grow. That has certainly benefited me personally. But it did take me a while to figure that out. 
When I was younger, I once – I was about a captain or so – I once attended a day-long seminar in building interpersonal relationships. Amongst several important points that the seminar leader made is that you basically – that I needed to a better job of showing my appreciation to others. So I decided to start by showing appreciation to the most important person in my life, my wife, Deanie. In fact, I was really excited to show her exactly how much I appreciated her, though I probably hadn’t been doing a very good job of it. 
So that evening I picked up a dozen long-stem roses and a box of chocolates on my way home from work. When I walked in the door, she glanced up and saw me standing there with the roses and chocolates, so she started crying. And I asked her what was wrong. And she told me, she said: It’s just been a terrible day. Megan just flushed her diaper down the toilet. (Laughter.) The dishwasher quit working. Chris has a fever. And now you’ve come home drunk. (Laughter, applause.) Clearly, I could have used that seminar a little earlier in my life. (Laughter.) But I am happy to report that I have become better about making sure that my family knows just how important they are to me. Family really is important.
We need to practice and model the habits of family for our youngsters as well, that is to say, those who serve who are much junior to us. Some of them model – actually model it for us. The Air Force just announced Captain Mike Richard as one example. They nominated him and named him as the fighter tactician of the year, for the year 2011. He planned large portions of the air campaign over Libya. I’m told he’s a fairly busy young man on a daily basis, but he took it to an entirely new level during Operation Odyssey Dawn. When asked how he managed it all, during his acceptance speech, he said – his answer was actually quite simple, he said: Lots of caffeine and an awesome family. I can relate to that. When you consider that Captain Richard and his wife were also raising a 2-year-old, planning a coalition air campaign may have seemed easy by comparison. (Laughter.) 
Of course Captain Richard wasn’t alone in that effort, far from it. In fact, in many ways, the Libya campaign was an object lesson in the value of military-to-military relationships. Now there certainly were bumps in the road, but there’s no way an operation of that magnitude could have been planned and executed that quickly. And just to be clear, we’re talking about hours and days, not weeks and months, without military relationships built on trust. In all, as you know, 18 militaries contributed to that joint and allied effort, saving untold thousands of lives.
It’s worth noting that although the force over Libya came together quickly, the relationship that produced it didn’t develop overnight. They are the product of years upon years of working together at every level across every service and with many countries. The last 10 years have shown us that the benefits of this approach – it’s really a mindset, really – are not limited just to the military. When we network within and beyond government, we add capacity, we add capability and we add credibility. The evolving security environment calls on us to expand the envelope of cooperation even further. We should consider ways to complement standing institutions and alliances with startup, purpose-driven communities of interest. And that means working with allies in new ways, boosting regional security architectures and building public-private partnerships.
I think we’re on the right track. Last month at the NATO conference in Chicago, one of my counterparts was extolling the value of his country’s participation in the National Guard State Partnership Program. He told me that he appreciated the world-class equipment and training, but he said what made the program was the familiarity and trust that flowed from it as it evolved over time. He’s worked with the same group of officers for the past 20 years, since he was a major. And today he’s a major general.
Sowing the seeds of trust early and often can bear a harvest that is well worth the labor. You can’t just phone it in. You have to dig in and get your hands dirty. We certainly have learned this over the past decade. My trip to the Asia-Pacific showed me how we have to do even more. We have to pay more attention investing our intellectual energy as a first step. We have to engage more with our allies. And we have to commit more of our best leaders and our best equipment to that very responsibility.
Our new strategy is first and foremost about leveraging our most significant edge, our people. For our defense strategy to work, our allies and partners have to do the same. This is why having international students here is so important. Among them today is our first graduate from Vietnam, Colonel Ha. I met your vice defense minister just a few days ago, and I know they’re proud of you. So are we. Some of you may know that last week on Memorial Day we launched the commemoration at the Vietnam – of the Vietnam War’s 50th anniversary. As we reflect on and learn about our experiences there, we would do well to listen to the voices of our former foes, now turned friends.
Our rebalance to the Asia-Pacific is also drawing on lessons of our experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan. Numerous nations sent and continue to send thousands of their service members to work shoulder to shoulder with us and with our Iraqi and Afghan security force counterparts. Together we put Iraq and are putting Afghanistan in a position where they can determine their own futures. That’s something of which we should all be proud.
In my judgment, the most important relationship underpinning our success is between those serving on the front lines and those who remain on the home front. Sometimes this can be an uneasy relationship. In some corners of our country and in some corners of other countries as well, there’s a silent divide between those who have experienced war and those who have only seen it through a distant and distorted lens. Our experiences are sometimes so different and so difficult to describe that we don’t want to talk about it anymore with the public. And we don’t want to talk about it any more than they want to hear it.
But it’s a conversation that we need to have. And as leaders, it’s a conversation you must promote and guide. The people we serve may not – may not always know what to say or how to say it, but one thing is clear to me: They care about you. They want to connect with you. Your story is their story too. So go tell it. Have the courage and patience to tell it again and again with humility and honesty.
If FDR is to be believed, telling that story, and therefore practicing the science of human relationships, is crucial to the survival of our civilization. So as the defenders of civilization, we must be willing to take the first steps. And when we do, I’m absolutely convinced that the good will which already exists will draw our public even nearer.
Future will be a difficult journey, but not one that any of us take alone. There was a proverb I found – (inaudible) – in my travels to many countries in the Mideast. It varies a little bit from place to place, but it essentially translates to this: One hand can’t clap.
No matter where you come from, I’m sure you have found the message of this proverb to be true. The bottom line is that we all have to make the effort together. Building and maintaining your relationships, which is essential to building and executing a coherent strategy, is a lot like clapping: You have to do it again and again and again.
So as you leave here today, I encourage you to take on board the responsibility to grow relationships. Put that tool prominent in your leadership toolbox. Start by resolving to stay in touch with the friends and colleagues and mentors that you’ve met here. They are the people you will not only want to keep in touch with, I can guarantee that you’ll need them some day.
Now, if you remember where I started this speech, part of relationship maintenance is showing appreciation for those that mean the most to you. And since you’re talking about clapping, how about a round of applause for your friends and family who have not only come out here to support you today but have been with you throughout your career? (Applause.)
And I’d like to add my appreciation and ask you to join me for the staff and faculty here at National Defense University. We – if we don’t put our very best here to help you to facilitate your education, to give you the opportunity to grow, then we will not have the – lived up to our responsibility – so to the staff and faculty. (Applause.)
And finally, to those around this great group of graduates who we are about to send forth to shape the world, how about we give the graduates a round of applause? (Applause.)
It’s been a great pleasure to be here and be part of this ceremony today. I look forward to shaking just over 600 hands. (Laughter.) I look forward to seeing you out and about. And if you – if we do come across each other, I would like you to remind me when I met you. I’m of an age now when sometimes I can’t exactly remember everything I do or say. (Laughter.) Sometimes that makes people on the third floor of the Pentagon a little nervous. (Laughter.)
But I would – if our paths do cross again – which they will – I do encourage you to come up and tell me how you’re doing and give you whatever advice you can give me, and we’ll share our thoughts, because it really is about relationships.
Thanks for all you’ve done and for all you’re about to do. God bless you all. (Applause.)