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Dempsey Addresses U.S. CEOs on Challenges of Leadership

By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service
Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey   (Related Biography)

Strengthening the standards of the military profession is a critical mission for the armed services, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said at The Wall Street Journal’s CEO Council here last night.

Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey told more than 100 U.S. executives that the profession of arms is unique, but that leaders have to keep working on the profession to ensure it maintains its ethos.

John Bussey, a Wall Street Journal assistant managing editor, interviewed Dempsey for the event.

Competence and loyalty are two necessary attributes, but the gold standard, Dempsey said, is trust. “You don’t walk out of a forward operating base in Afghanistan unless you have a level of trust in the man or woman to your right and left, your leadership, your medics,” he said.

But responsibility and accountability are important as well, the general told the executives. “There have been missteps recently that we are trying to overcome -- missteps that I attribute to 10 years of frenetic activity -- and I think we forgot a little about how we balance character and competence,” he said.

The chairman stressed that it is not a choice between character and competence, but a blend of the two. “You don’t want a leader in a combat zone who is really a man of great character, but can’t fight his way out of a paper bag,” the general said. “Nor do you want the ultimate warrior god who isn’t a man of character.”

The chairman was loath to compare military and civilian leadership, except in one instance.

“I do think there’s something extraordinary about being given the responsibility for people’s lives,” he said. “That should cause us all pause and put it in perspective. I’ll accept that as part of our uniqueness, which gives us some balance of both physical courage and moral courage that may be unique in our profession.”

The profession of arms has a long and honorable history, Dempsey noted. “We commit ourselves to an uncommon life, and we accept, by becoming a member of the profession, to live to a certain ethos,” he said. “In our case, it is serving the people of the United States and ensuring the common defense -- or, as I like to put it, keeping the country immune from coercion.”

Part of being a leader in a profession is the need to encourage education throughout a career, the general said.

“Other than the medical profession, our continuing education program for leaders in the military is second to none,” he added. “We try to renew our commitment to being part of a profession at various intervals along the way.”

But you are not a profession just because you say you are, the chairman said.

“You have to earn it and re-earn it,” he explained. “And particularly in our relationship with the American people, we have to continue to earn it.”

(Follow Jim Garamone on Twitter: @GaramoneAFPS)