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Adm. Winnefeld’s Commencement Address at National Defense University

By by Admiral James A. Winnefeld Jr

ADMIRAL JAMES WINNEFELD: Well good morning!  I’d say that in a whole bunch of different languages but I would probably offend somebody by missing a language, but good morning, it’s terrific to be here, and thank you Ambassador Nesbitt for that very kind introduction.  First, a few greetings.

Provost Yaeger, Commandants Cosentino and Gorry, Chancellor Bell, Acting Chancellor McCully, and other distinguished colleagues on the dias today, thank you for your leadership of and support for this wonderful and important institution.

I know General Martin couldn’t be here today, but he’s rightly focusing on what Chairman Dempsey has listed as one of his top priorities, and that is keeping faith with our Military Family. He is attempting to graduate of one of his sons who earns his Green Beret today, and could not be with us, but he’s in our hearts and minds, and we’re grateful for his leadership.

I know he has a habit of exuberantly expressing his love of NDU students, so in a show of solidarity, my staff and I have been practicing my chest-bumps, high fives, low fives, fist bumps, and "HOOAHs.” 

Second, I want to extend a very special welcome to the many distinguished ambassadors and military attachés supporting our international students who are here today, thank you for joining us in this big moment for your countrymen.

I was struck by the diversity of nations that I saw, all from different regions, different challenges, different languages, but all of them close partners of the United States, and all of us sharing basic beliefs in freedom and the rule of law. Thank you, all of you, ambassadors, attachés, and students alike for being under this big tent.

And finally, welcome and congratulations to faculty, family and friends, and most important, today’s degree honorees.

What a special privilege it is for me to be able to return to this extraordinary place.

NDU is a true national treasure, the premier institution in the world for advanced joint, combined, and interagency education, leader development, and scholarship in national security.  

This is the central node of a global network of defense universities, an essential tool for sustaining the professionalism of our military and our government, and making our small contribution to that of our many friends around the globe. 

So I’m honored to speak to NDU’s principle product, and that is you, the professionals who have given yourselves to a life of what we call service, and to the uncommon life of such great consequence that accompanies it.

And in so doing, I thank NDU’s dedicated faculty, one part distinguished academicians, one part senior military officers, and one part senior civilian officials and diplomats, who showed you the way.

I also thank you for offering me a handy “get out of jail free card” from the Pentagon today.  Sort of a work release program for the Vice Chairman.

Now, my first duty this morning is to extend my heartfelt congratulations and well done to this year’s degree recipients. 

My second duty is to try to offer something that might be of use to you as you head back out into what we call the real world, but that is increasingly becoming an unreal world.

And of course my third duty on a slightly humid [day] - but we’re really lucky with the weather [this] morning in a tent, is to do this all quickly.

I hope it’s been a good year for you, and that you’ve had an opportunity while you were here to refresh, to reconnect with family, and to make new friends; and in the midst of it all to sharpen your strategic thinking every bit as much as you have your softball skills.

I looked at the injury statistics last night and they looked more like a college football program than a security institution. Ambassador Nesbitt, we want NDU to have an enduring impact on its students, but this is a little ridiculous!

But after you walk out of this tent and heal your wounds, each of you will re-enter a world in a position of greater responsibility than when you left.

That world is constantly shifting before our eyes, with accelerating changes and complex challenges we simply cannot ignore; 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, and a host of evolving threats to our national security; from ambitious, major nation-states jostling for hegemony over their neighbors and finding new ways to achieve it; to violent extremists who seek to suppress the ambitions of entire peoples and to attack this country in the process; to authoritarian states that mistakenly believe the only path to security is through acquisition of weapons of mass destruction; to transnational criminal organizations that erode societies by trafficking in drugs and people.

As Ambassador Nesbitt alluded, It’s hard to believe, and yes we in the military are guilty of looking at history, it’s hard to believe it was only 27 years ago today that President Reagan, in fact, challenged Soviet Union leader Gorbachev to “tear down this wall!” 

It seemed like such a simple world back then, and such a changing world today.

To paraphrase an earlier Soviet leader, Leon Trotsky, “You may not be interested in change, but change is interested in you.”

Real people, like you, have to lead that change in the right direction, lead us into the future, and I would charge that you become one of the people who contribute to that leadership, and do it well.

To do so, you’ll need to reach for exceptionality in five ways.  So rather than spend time today talking about the world, I want to talk about you, by speaking briefly to those five exceptionalities in turn.

The first, is exceptional competence. 

You arrived here with a set of skills unique to your profession, whatever it is, and depart with a significantly refreshed foundation of knowledge.

I would submit that you’re blessed with this knowledge, and thus have a responsibility to use it in some positive way.

We gave this gift to you not only so you would ask the right questions, but so that you could answer a few for us as well.

Moreover, while you have gained new tools here, you must never be finished learning.

That thought shows up in a lot of speeches like this because it’s so incredibly important to the kind of people who give speeches like this. 

If you’re going to lead big organizations through big changes, to breathe new life into ideas that matter, then you’re going to have to continue to broaden yourself in a way that allows you to graft important, sometimes very different, expertise onto your own. 

There are a lot of things that will try to get in the way, the crushing burden of everyday work, the amazing torrent of daily information flowing past you, your next meeting, your next speech. 

Make it a point to continue to build your knowledge-based competence any way you can.

Competence is not only what we desperately need to have at the helm of our security institutions, it’s the prerequisite for the second exceptionality you must achieve, which is exceptional innovation.

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 one out.” 

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

Fundamentally, you have to do two things. 

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

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

And it’s terribly important at this moment in our many nations’ journey through history. 

Innovation lies mostly in the fertile ground of ways inside the delicate balance among ends, ways, means, and risk that is the true essence of strategy.

In an environment where we want to maintain our ends with decreasing means, finding new ways seems to be our only trade space.

That’s why innovation is a key message embedded in this year’s Quadrennial Defense Review, and I hope you all will go out and challenge all the assumptions when you leave this place, and that your good ideas will be accelerated by your experiences here.

That’s where your third imperative, exceptional boldness, comes into focus, because we need you to forcefully get these new ideas of yours, those new ways, through a reluctant system full of vested interests.  That’s the hard part.

I used to tell my kids, when they were in 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 wonder 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, and 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. 

Others don’t want to break out of that paradigm – it may be the only thing they have ever known, or they are part of a powerful community with great internal peer pressure.

You will return to institutions where a lot of that is going on.

Someone has to lead them out of this, and that would be you, because you’ll be stepping into an increasingly important leadership role in the world that you inhabit.

We didn’t send you through this program to go back and be timid. 

We sent you through one of these schools to gain knowledge and then to go out and boldly make things happen. 

You will have to be impatient, noisy, forceful, and acutely sensitive to the peculiarities of the organization you’re trying to change, all at the same time.

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 at the plate to only 70 percent of the time will become one of the highest paid players in the game.  

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

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

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

And that leads me to the fourth imperative: exceptional integrity.

There is a building here named for President Dwight D. Eisenhower, one of the fathers of NDU and a gifted strategic leader, a man who epitomized the meaning of character. 

In his words, “The supreme quality for leadership is unquestionably integrity.  Without it, no real success is possible, no matter whether it’s on a football field, in an army, or in an office.”

Over recent times, we’ve seen disturbing instances in business, in sports, in governments, and even in corners of our own military that reflect a failure of integrity among both the leaders and the led. 

No organization can excel for very long without a culture of integrity.

Because culture reflects the collective behavior of the senior leadership, and that senior leadership will very soon be you, you absolutely must live and breathe integrity.

Every time we experience a lack of integrity, it shakes our institution, and it’s very difficult to recover. 

Someone once said, every politician wakes up in the morning and looks in the mirror and sees a future president. 

When you peer in the mirror in the morning, I would urge you to simply see someone looking back at you asking a simple question:  “will you do the best you can for your nation today, and will you do it with integrity?”

And that leads me to the final high that you must achieve: exceptional caring. 

Sounds strange coming from a warrior.

But Colin Powell, a graduate of this fine institution, once told me that the essence of leading people is to hold them to the highest possible standards while taking the best possible care of them. 

Caring for your people is about putting the people in your organization above yourself, and creating a place where people want to work hard.  Where families know that they matter.

It means having a leader-centric organization, but not one that is about glorifying the leader. 

It means holding yourself to a higher standard than you hold your own people.

It also means sticking to our ethos that we will not leave a fallen comrade on the battlefield, everyone comes home, and we will manage the residual risk. 

Let’s not forget that.

As your responsibilities as a leader grow, you’re tempted to become more separated from those on the front lines, General Powell’s simple admonition should always be at the back of your mind.

So as you venture out of this place, strive for exceptional competence, innovation, boldness, integrity, and caring, and you’ll be able to help us conquer the immense challenges before us on whatever field you happen to strive.

But we will only do this by acting together.

In this regard, it is symbolic that Elihu Root, who laid the cornerstone of the magnificent Roosevelt Hall behind me as the 41st Secretary of War in 1903, also returned in 1908 to speak to its completion while serving as the 38th Secretary of State. 

Together, with our many partners in our government and with our allies and friends abroad, we can and truly should make a difference one nation and one action at a time. 

Now, I’d like to leave each of you with one final thought, whether you’re an American citizen or one of our very distinguished guests here from another nation. 

Whatever flaws America has, and in the midst of all of our strengths, including geography, demographics, our scratchy democracy, our wonderful diversity, increasing self-reliance on energy and other natural resources, the freedom to be innovative, a free and unsuppressed media, the quality of our economy, the precious foundation of rule of law, the world’s most capable military, and, especially relevant this morning, our excellence in higher education; all of which refute, for me, at least 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 there are hard-working young men and women out there somewhere today who are willing to risk their lives to keep that idea alive.  

Make sure you do your best for them, for our nation, and for our partners around the world.

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

All of you, through your principled leadership, are the strongest weapon we have for peace. 

The Chairman and I, and indeed all of the citizens represented by all of the nations represented here today, are counting on you to build on what you have learned here to lead us into the future.

Thank you very much for your efforts, thank you very much for inviting me to be here today.