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Adm. Winnefeld's Commencement Address at Georgia Institute of Technology

By As Delivered by Admiral James A. "Sandy" Winnefeld

ADMIRAL JAMES WINNEFELD: President Peterson, thank you sir for that kind introduction.

Provost Bras, Deans of Colleges, Administrators, Faculty, Family and Friends, and masters and doctoral honorees.

Good evening Yellow Jackets!  What an honor and a special privilege it is for me to return to this extraordinary place.

And thank you, President Peterson, for offering me a handy “get out of jail free card” from Washington, DC, sort of a one day “work release program” to Atlanta for the commencement speaker.  It's a tough duty!

Actually, my first duty this evening is to extend my heartfelt greetings and well done to this spring’s graduate degree recipients. 

My second duty, like President Peterson, is to remind you to thank your Mom, and your Dad, and your spouse if you’re married, and anyone else in your life who has supported you on this journey, including the magnificent faculty and staff who helped guide you to this moment. 

I don’t think I can go wrong tonight in asking for another round of applause for all of those wonderful people.

My third duty is to try to offer something that might be of use to you, an arena full of very bright people who tonight stand at the edge of yet another of life’s key transitions, before you go to an after-party that will cause you to quickly forget whatever it is I have to say.

As I searched for advice on preparing for tonight, the most memorable piece I found was to avoid rambling, which, as a card-carrying Ramblin’ Reck, caused me to bristle a little bit, so out of sheer defiance I reserve the right to ramble.

I also revisited last fall’s undergraduate convocation speech given by sophomore Nick Selby, which many of you have surely seen because it immediately went viral on the internet. 

I’m sorry, I have no music tonight, and, much to the relief of the ladies and gentlemen seated behind me, I won’t try to top Nick’s invigorating address.

But I would make the point that it was a wonderful and exuberant statement about Georgia Tech and who we are, inventive, enthusiastic, impatient, intellectually rowdy and audacious, sometimes to a fault. 

It’s why I so loved living and learning on this campus, why I’m always delighted to return and why I’m so honored to stand before you tonight.

When I first arrived 40 years ago an 18 year old kid trying to figure out why on earth there were bumper stickers everywhere proclaiming “To Hell With Georgia”.

I had no idea how well this wonderful institution would mature me, teach me to solve problems and impart the awesome technical education I’ve turned to repeatedly over the course of my career. 

I have to confess, though, that I’ve failed to live up to Nick’s exhortation. I did not build, much less fly around the world in, the Iron Man Suit. 

But I did fly around a few faraway places in a Navy fighter jet and somehow ended up here tonight.

By the way, it might interest you to know that we actually are building the Iron Man Suit. 

Except we call it something else, some indecipherable department of defense acronym. 

It can’t fly just yet, but perhaps a few of you in this room can help us with that.

Here’s another confession:  I can’t actually recall who spoke at my own commencement, which is both an embarrassing revelation and a good antidote to hubris. 

I only hope that person isn’t here listening tonight.

But I do remember who spoke during my Navy commissioning ceremony the very previous day. 

It was my Dad, who, for you Georgia Tech football fans was born on the exact same day in 1929 that Cal’s Roy Reigels ran 70 yards the wrong way with a fumble in the Rose Bowl, helping Tech win its first-ever bowl game by a score of 8-7. 

Now that’s some rambling.

What I remember from my Dad’s speech is that it was about Newton’s three laws of leadership. 

You know a body at rest will remain at rest and a body in motion will remain in motion unless acted upon by some external force.

If you use your imagination, you can fill in the rest.  

It was a great metaphor for talking about leadership, and though he didn’t say so at the time, about leading change, which is what I want to talk to you about tonight, because I believe it’s the main reason you worked so hard to gain the knowledge that we will now demand that you put to use.

Every academic discipline represented here tonight touches one or more of the major challenges facing our world, energy and infrastructure, population growth and hunger, water resources and climate change. The risks and opportunities associated with an incredibly interconnected world, a rapidly changing economic landscape, evolving threats to global security, and so many others. 

Many of you will rise to leadership in a field -- in business or academia or government or some other profession -- charged with tackling one or more of those challenges.

Somebody has to do it, and it might as well be you.

To paraphrase Leon Trotsky:  you may not be interested in change, but change is interested in you. 

This institution has equipped you with the best possible foundation from which to start.

I would submit that you are blessed with this knowledge, and thus have a responsibility to use it in some kind of positive way, so make the most of it, because you don’t have much time.

That’s the “why” of “it should be you leading change.”

But what about the “how?” 

Truth be told, it’s much easier said than done and it can be hardest in a large organization. 

In my world Liddell Hart, a famous British military theorist whose battalion was nearly wiped out at the Battle of the Somme 98 years ago was not far off when he said the only thing harder than getting a new idea into the military mind is getting an old idea out. 

But the same thing applies to government bureaucracies and major corporations and almost any other organization you can imagine.

Having tried to emulate a few remarkable people who have managed to do it well, I thought I’d offer you a few humble observations regarding what it takes to lead change.

Fundamentally, you have to do two things. 

First, you have to have a good idea in which you believe and then you have to push that idea through whatever poor unsuspecting system it is in which you operate. 

It’s that simple, and it’s that hard.  But it can also be exciting, and rewarding, and fun.

Leading change begins with the creative process when someone, like you, challenges the assumptions and connects the dots from different fields into previously unknown combinations then unveils either an incremental or revolutionary idea people haven’t yet seen.

I would assert that such creative synthesis most often emerges from a single person’s mind, or at best from a small group, it’s almost never done as a herd.

Which means that, even though you walk out of here tonight with a specialized diploma, if you’re going to lead change, to breathe life into new ideas that matter, then you are going to have to broaden yourself in a way that allows you to graft different – sometimes very different – expertise onto your own. 

That thought shows up in a lot of commencement speeches because it’s so incredibly important to the kinds of people who give commencement speeches, who have probably led some kind of change during their professional lives. 

The fusion of disparate knowledge can come to you in the most fascinating ways at the most unexpected times because your mind is always running software in the background even when you’re goofing off.

But these flashes of insight, as exhilarating as they are, don’t arrive free of charge.

Oliver Wendell Holmes once said “I wouldn’t give a fig for the simplicity on this side of complexity, but I would give my life for the simplicity on the far side of complexity." 

If you’re a relentlessly curious person, and are willing to do the hard work to get to the other side of complexity, as you have to earn your degrees, then you have a great start on leading the first part of change. 

Unfortunately, we tend to spend more energy on that part than we do on the more grueling part of pushing an idea through the system.

I used to tell my kids, during their soccer years, that there are three kinds of people in this world:  those who make things happen, those who watch things happen, and those who wondered what happened.

Well, life imitates soccer, making things happen in this world requires a lot of things, but above all you have to be bold.  Surprisingly few people are.

I’m constantly reminded that incredibly bright adults will work extremely long hours, perfecting fundamentally flawed concepts. 

They just aren’t bold enough to break out of the existing paradigm.

Someone has to lead them out of all this, and that would be you.

Think of it as guiding people on a journey through concentric circles of discovery - ignorance, denial, vicious compliance, well-intended misapplication and then renewed understanding and acceptance of the idea into the body of practice.

You’ll know you’re there when other people start enthusiastically leading the change for you. 

Ushering an organization through these circles requires not only boldness, but also a dash of empathy, as well as tact, persuasion and persistence. 

But being bold also means taking risk, which means you’re sometimes going to fail. 

I try to remember that a professional baseball player who is able to reliably limit his failure rate at the plate to only 70% will become one of the highest paid players in the game.  

I only wish the Braves would fail a little more often when they’re playing the Nationals.

People just hate to fail, me included, but there’s simply no escaping the fact that success is the daughter of failure. 

My 70% have mostly involved either an idea that was too early for its time, or me not acting fast enough in limited time, or not doing well enough to understand the culture, which I was trying to possibly change, or simply an inability to overcome the momentum of a big organization. 

I’m lucky my failures were tolerated by benevolent bosses who understood that people feel empowered to push through the most amazing things when they know the only unacceptable failures are a lack of integrity or a failure to learn from, failure.

But if you do get to the other side of complexity, and lead people through those concentric circles, you too can experience the exhilaration of change. 

What will it look like?

Well, you might change the underlying framework for looking at a problem.  We’ve had to do a lot of that lately in the balancing act we call national security. 

Or, you might increase agility by breaking things down into more granular bits so they can better be rearranged into better and faster combinations. 

After all, speed is life in my business and will be in yours. 

Or, perhaps you might build greater versatility, like the way we find new things for an existing unit, platform or person to do, and enable them to switch quickly from one role to another. 

Or, you might pioneer fresh integration, like how our special operations forces have fused intelligence and operations to dramatically increase their effectiveness. 

But no matter what that change looks like, a little humility will do you a lot of good along the way.  That can be the hardest part.

There’s a natural human tendency to want to take credit when things go well. 

But business guru Jim Collins was so right when he said the best leaders combine a deep personal humility with intense professional will.   

I want to let you in on one of the secrets of why the U.S. has the most capable military in the world.

The quickest way for a young fighter pilot or platoon commander or submarine watch officer to lose credibility, is to lack humility, by denying mistakes, or taking credit where it’s not due, or even taking credit where it is due. 

You don’t have to be a rock star to lead change, your people will be more eager to follow you, if they know they’re doing it for the betterment of something other than your own reputation.

There you have it, other than the privilege of working with the remarkable young men and women who wear the cloth of our nation, the exhilaration of finding a better idea and pulling it off is what I live for in my professional life, and I hope it ends up as part of yours. 

I don’t pretend that anything I’ve said to you about leading change is new. 

But perhaps these modest thoughts on something for which Georgia Tech has prepared you so well, will help energize your next steps down life’s amazing path. 

Borrowing Nick Selby’s words, “You can do it [balloon popping] there you go. . . you are a hell of an engineer, you are now from Georgia Tech.

I’d like to leave you with one final thought. 

Whatever flaws we have as a nation, and in the midst of all of our strengths, including geography, demographics, diversity, energy and other natural resources, freedom to be innovative, the quality of our economy, the world’s best military, and – especially relevant tonight – our excellence in higher education, all of which refute, at least for me, any narrative that we are a nation in decline.

I hope you’ll remember that America is more than just a nation, it remains an idea about freedom and liberty, and that more people are trying to get into this country to share in that idea than are trying to leave, and that there are hard-working young men and women out there somewhere tonight who are willing to risk their lives to keep that idea alive for you.

Once again, please accept my heartfelt congratulations for the well-deserved fruits of your hard work. 

Press forward, secure in the knowledge that your future is less about what you decide to do in life and more about how you go about doing it and what kind of person you become in the process. 

And thank you so much for inviting me back. 

I’m very grateful for the opportunity to publicly say how well Georgia Tech prepared me for my future as it has surely prepared you for yours.

I can assure you, the best is yet to come.  Thank you.