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Gen. Dempsey's Interview on Leadership

By As Delivered by General Martin E. Dempsey, Washington, D.C.
Pentagon Channel: We’re joined today by General Martin Dempsey. Sir, thank you for your time today.

GEN Dempsey: My pleasure. I’m looking forward to the conversation.

Pentagon Channel: Well let’s just get right into the conversation topic of leadership. Sir, how do you define leadership?

GEN Dempsey: Well, at its most—first of all, there have been plenty of books written about that, and through the course of career, I’ve tried to understand as much as I can on the topic. But I mean, clearly, leadership is the acceptance of responsibility for an outcome.

And that’s—I think that’s true whether it happens to be military leadership or whether it’s leadership in industry or in government. It’s also some combination of a commitment of the outcome, but also the commitment to the people—you can’t lead yourself, I mean I suppose you can, but it wouldn’t be a very interesting endeavor.

And so, it’s also a commitment to somehow develop those who choose to accept your leadership. And by the way, that is a part of leadership, that is to say leadership often comes with authority and responsibility, but my definition of leadership is—it’s important to add to that, that the understanding that those who lead make the deliberate decision whether to consider you as a leader and to follow your lead. And so there’s this kind of dynamic interaction between leader and led that has to mature over time to build trust. I think trust is probably the most—the single most [important] quality to develop, if you will, or to deliver in this thing called leadership.

So you know, I mean—it’s one of those words, that as you unpack it, it begins to have more meaning, and I would, you know, for those that will be watching this interview, I would say that if you ever decide that you’ve got the definition about right, then you’re wrong because it’s something that requires constant study and constant work.

Pentagon Channel: Excellent. Next question. How is humility important to the success of a leader?

GEN Dempsey: Well, I mentioned that leadership is the interaction between leader and led and has to be based on a relationship of trust, otherwise there’s no real leadership. There’s coercion, but there’s no real leadership.

I think that humility is the trait that allows subordinates to enter into that trust relationship. In other words, if subordinates, or employees, if you will in the private sector, if they believe that the leader is engaged in his or her activity for their own purposes, if they perceive that the leader takes all the credit, none of the blame—you’ve heard that cliché—then they won’t, you know, they’re not going to enter into that trust relationship. So I think humility is an important component, not the most important component, but certainly an important component of leadership so that you provide that foundation. The trust relationship that I suggested to you is really what defines a leadership or a leader.

Pentagon Channel: And what’s the hardest part about being a leader?

GEN Dempsey: Well, the hardest part is the responsibility, particularly in our profession, when you realize the responsibility that you have. You know the old cliché that a leader is responsible for the performance of its unit and all of its members both on and off duty, everything they do and everything they fail to do.

And that’s an enormous responsibility and that one probably unique to the military profession, but it’s sort of what captured my imagination and my soul many years ago is this—the degree to which a military does have responsibility at a very young age. I mean, from the time that a noncommissioned officer pins on the sergeant’s stripes and an officer pins on his second lieutenant—or her second lieutenant bars, so I think the hardest part is the responsibility.

Pentagon Channel: And along the same subject line, what’s your definition of integrity?

GEN Dempsey: You know, again, one of these words where we tend to pile abstraction on abstraction on abstraction, and I’ve often—in a pleasant way—been involved in discussions about what is the distinction between integrity and honor, honesty, you know, I mean, fill in the blanks.

But so to answer the question, and this is my personal answer, but I think that everyone has to grasp it themselves. I think that my definition of integrity is the ability to act for noble purposes. And so there is this balance between acting for your own personal benefit, and there is the sort of competing requirement as a leader to act for the benefit of others. And there is this third element of acting for the benefit of the nation.

And I think my definition of integrity is the ability to knit those things together so you don’t exclude one or the other. Look, I mean human nature isn’t going to allow you to completely discount your own wellbeing in any action you take. But I think integrity comes in as you begin to find, as you mature, as your understanding of leadership matures, as your understanding of even the word “integrity” matures. I think it’s finding that balance among what’s best for you personally, what’s best for those who are serving with and for you, and what’s best for the nation.

Pentagon Channel: Sir, how do you, as a leader, foster the responsible use of power?

GEN Dempsey: Well by the way, that phrase you just used, “the responsible use of power”, is exactly the definition of—that is exactly the principle on which our service as a profession is built. So in other words, we could also discuss here, I’m not interested in doing so, but we could discuss the difference between an occupation and a profession.

But the military profession is unique in that it holds a monopoly on responsible use of power on behalf of the nation. So that phrase, ‘the responsible use of power’, makes us a profession. And when you ask me how do I ensure that we are exercising power responsibly, it starts, maybe finishes but certainly starts with the fact that we bring into the service young men and women from a variety of backgrounds, we ask them to embrace a particular set of values, and those particular set of values begin to define the profession and once you have that, then you count upon those in that profession to understand enough about power, force, lethal effects, nonlethal effects that they will execute them responsibly.

So there’s a yin and yang, an almost inseparable element between being a profession and living up to that responsibility to use power in a proper way. I could elaborate a bit more and discuss the morality, really – the ethics of force which turn on really three aspects. One is, for what intention are you using force? With what behavior? And do you have a reasonable chance of producing the outcome?

So the responsible use of force has to have the proper intention, it seems to me. This is a philosophical argument, but an important one. So your intentions have to be sound. The way you apply it has to account for the behaviors we expect. So as a nation, we have a certain expectation in how we will apply force. And generally, it’s with precision, limiting as much as possible human suffering and collateral damage, and we can go on and on.

So it’s the intention, the behavior and then the outcome. For example, it would be improper to apply such force if you didn’t have a reasonable chance at achieving the outcome you intend, see what I mean? None of these questions are all that simple, and they shouldn’t be, but you have that mandate to us as professionals to then trust them to apply force against that standard of intent, behavior and outcome.

Pentagon Channel: Excellent. So what advice would you provide to a person about how to be an effective leader?

GEN Dempsey: First of all, yeah, how to be an effective leader. I think the first thing you have to do is be yourself. You’ll often—particularly a young NCO, noncommissioned officer, a young officer—I think sometimes you – there’s a tendency to look around and decide … you pick a particular role model and that you want to become them. It’s okay to aspire to their values, their skills, to their approach, but the first thing you must understand as a leader is that you are who you are. And we are all very different. And that is one of the great strengths of our nation, our military, is the diversity of the backgrounds and that we draw in to the military and the way that we mold them into a professional committed to a certain set of values.

They’re always themselves, and so the lens through which they apply those values have to be very personal values. If a leader isn’t true to him or herself, that’ll be quickly identifiable by those they try to lead, and they won’t be effective.

Second thing I would say is that a leader has to be someone who’s committed to the development of their subordinates. This isn’t just—we always talk about the balance between accomplishing the mission and developing the young men and entrusted to our care. I don’t worry much about the accomplishment of the mission part. In the military profession, in particular, we’re gonna accomplish the mission. I mean, it’s just such a part of our culture that the default mechanism is to accomplish the mission.

The piece that I do become concerned with on occasion has become so complex, so pervasive, so repetitive is that we’ll begin to forget about the other half of the equation. And the other half of the equation is that a true leader is deeply committed in the men and women who incredibly serve and do the things we ask them to do.

And so you know, it’s some kind of combination of those two things, I think, that define a leader with one addition. And that is – there’s a little cliché I carry around with me sometimes, that’s you know, “leaders are readers”. But it’s not about readers, it’s about being committed to developing yourself. So I would be a pretty miserable example if I were satisfied that I was a fully developed and satisfactory leader when I was a colonel commanding an Armored Cavalry Regiment. Because the jobs that we ask—all of us—you know, as we move each other around into different positions.

I mean they’re all different, literally different. I mean, and they all have a different set of responsibilities. There are some sort of enduring things that, you know, move with you—integrity is one—that moves from place to place—but the ability to adapt, to embrace change, to see change before it washes over you, to have the courage to do something about it, to make those really tough decisions that rise to the level of moral courage—all of those things require you to continually, to develop yourself. So you really have to be a lifelong learner. And if ever you decide you could stop learning, then you—fundamentally, you’ve stopped leading.

Pentagon Channel: And that’s a perfect segue into my next question which is, how do you deal with loyalty conflicts when principles conflict with organizational practices, personal agendas versus mission, for example?

GEN Dempsey: Well, you know, this is the military—I’ll speak to the military profession, notably, because this is the cloth I wear. This is a human enterprise, and so all of the strengths and weaknesses you’d expect to find in any human enterprise, you’re going to find them in our profession.

I think we tend to be a little better at vetting and allowing those who don’t need to serve to find other employment. I think we’re a little better at culling, meaning, I think we, you know our merit-based promotion system is very effective at ensuring that the people rise and continue to rise, embrace their values and don’t generate those kinds of loyalty conflicts as you described them. But none of that means you’ll never encounter any of that.

I’m throwing around leadership clichés left and right here today, but another one of them is that you can’t walk past an active and disciplined mistake. And if you have, as a leader then you’ve set a new standard. And so I think it’s the constant vigilance, one might call it vision at the loftiest levels, but it’s seeing at the more junior levels. Being able to see the things, then understanding. See first, then understand the things going around you and not being satisfied.

There’s a great quotation out of Google. Google’s corporate mantra is “never settle”. I think that’s kind of applicable to our profession as well. And in our profession, we simply cannot settle for mediocrity. We have to constantly be seeking to improve ourselves and our unit.

So when you encounter these disloyalties and dysfunctionalities, in our profession, it can be a matter of life and death and you have to confront them. And as a result, we tend to be a very introspective profession. You know the after action review, anytime we do anything—a training exercise, an actual military operation in Iraq, in Afghanistan or elsewhere, there will always be an after action review where we are very, almost disarmingly candid, about what went well and what didn’t go well. And it’s exactly intended to ensure that the team stays together with the common purpose and we don’t allow those disloyalties or dysfunctionalities to propagate. But it takes work, and I think, but I think it’s work that we should embrace as leaders.

Pentagon Channel: As an executive, how do you encourage independent thinking and avoid groupthink?

GEN Dempsey: Well, first of all you have to express, mostly it’s by what you do, but you have to begin that process with what you say. I’ll give you a personal example from when I joined the Joint Staff.

Over the course of time, because the pace of our activities, notably in Iraq and Afghanistan, have been so—so aggressive and so consuming, we began to outsource our thinking in many ways. And by the way, I’m not against contractors, but I do think we probably overcorrected because we wanted to keep the uniforms in the fight, and we probably overcorrected a bit and outsourced our thinking, so if someone were to say to me, “What do you think Joint Force 2020 should look like?” A couple of years ago, the answer would be, “Well, let’s ask—you know, I won’t use any corporate names here—but let’s ask this corporation or that corporation to organize a study, we’ll give them six months, and they’ll come in, and we’ll allow them to interview and do all the research necessary, and then they’ll give us a couple of ideas and we’ll decide what ideas to take.”

Well, that was a useful tool, but it’s one that I think we probably overused and so the first thing I did when I came to the Joint Staff was declare that I’m not going to outsource my thinking. If I want a question answered, I’m going to ask the extraordinarily talented men and women who work for me on the Joint Staff or I’ll go one of the war colleges, Army, Navy War Colleges, Air War College, or National Defense University, or I’ll go to one of the military academies where we have made an immense investment in the faculty and I’ll insource it. And people were kind of nervous about that, and so, but we have.

Now to your point about how do you avoid groupthink or being given information that people think I want, not what I want. That gets at what I do. If I were to get a piece of staff work or in a meeting and get an unsatisfactory answer, my reaction to that is what sends a message to people about whether they can take some risk with me or not. And it is a difficult position. The Chairman is a, it doesn’t feel that way to me personally—I mean every morning I wake up and wonder how in the world did this happen?, but the point is because I‘m the senior military officer in the entire Armed Forces, it is a bit intimidating when people come to either present something to me or ask me a question or present an action ready for signature.

So how I react to that, whether it’s collaborative, whether it’s inquisitive, if I value their thoughts, and sort of the opposite would be if I were impatient with them, if I were demeaning to them, if I were dismissive of them, then if I did that once, then I’ve lost that person for the entire tour. So I’m very aware of the fact—and by the way, I’m not perfect—there are days, there are moments when I know I’m probably shorter with people than I should be or if I’m more impatient with people than I should be.

But generally, I go into each engagement knowing that if this young man or women comes into brief me on something, or present a paper or present an action for me, this might be the only time in 90, in 120, or 180 days to see me, and their impression of me as a leader is important to me, and so I try to empower them to stretch their thinking out and not believe like they have to come back with some template.

And by the way, that process of moving paperwork in the Pentagon can drive you toward a template, so I have to encourage them to break the mold, and sometimes that’s successful and sometimes it’s not. So it’s both about saying—establishing your expectations verbally, but it’s more important in how I deal with people.

Pentagon Channel: Excellent. So let me ask you this. How do you balance vision and follow through in times when resources are limited?

GEN Dempsey: I’m not sure if you can have vision absent resources. Clausewitz famously described the triad of ends, ways and means. And he did that, and they’re connected.

I can have all the vision I want about Joint Force 2020 if I did it in an unconstrained environment or even with unconstrained thinking. And what I mean by constrained is that there are resource constraints, political constraints, there are some things this nation will never do. We’re just not—our values system often will often shape our actions.

So the unconstrained approach to vision is a fool’s errand to tell you the truth. The reality is that your vision has to be resource-conscious or resource-sensitive or you will frustrate yourself and those around you. Now that said, I sense that where the question wanted me to go is if I needed the nation to really need something, let’s say that’s a particular platform or a program, or a structure, or a mission, you know, will I have the moral courage to argue for the resources to get it? Of course I will. And when the resources come up short, and they often do, then it’s my responsibility to articulate risk.

So to answer your risk as closely as I possibly can, vision isn’t vision unless it’s resource-sensitive. At least that’s the reality, and it’s always been true. It’s just more true today. And secondly, the real responsibility in linking vision through resources, is risk. And that’s my responsibility, to articulate risk. And then if risk gets too high, then have that moral courage to have that conversation.

Pentagon Channel: Last question. What leader did you use as a role model and why?

GEN Dempsey: Yeah, I saw that question coming and it’s a really interesting question because you know on the one hand, I can start spouting off World War I generals and admirals, and of course I’m going to do that at the end of this.

But I’ll tell you that I’m still in the service today because of my first platoon sergeant and my first troop commander in the Army. Because if something doesn’t capture your imagination, I described it as capturing your soul, we talked about it as somebody’s got to light your fire, pick your metaphor. But the point is that somebody doesn’t, in those early years, find a way to convince you that what we ask you as a profession is worth it, and that the profession will, as a matter of priority, develop you, it is about the mission, but we’re also committed to develop you. That’s how we lose kids.

We don’t lose kids—generally we don’t lose kids because of money, we don’t lose kids because we move them around too often or send them off to war too frequently. We lose kids because leaders don’t inspire them to continue to serve. And you know, that’s troubling to me, and I dig into it. If I find a man or woman who’s recently out, I’ll sit ‘em down and ask them to tell me where we didn’t convince you to remain part of this profession.

So the issue is that you answer the question about who inspires you not once in your career, but a hundred times in your career. Every place you go, you’re on the lookout for a leader who—I mean look, to put it in sort of common language—you’re looking for someone you want to be like when you grow up.

And by the way, that’s what I used to tell my battalion commanders when I was a division commander. I told them in more than one setting, I mean look, you could have the best—and I’m a tanker—your battalion can score the best gunnery scores of any battalion in any division. You could just completely knock it out of the park at the combat maneuver training centers. You could accomplish any mission I ask you better than anybody else, but I tell you what. If the young men and women that are serving—those captains and those lieutenants, those buck sergeants and staff sergeants—if they don’t want to be like you, you know, when they continue to mature, then you’re not a good leader. You know, you’re a good manager, and you’re probably a decent task master, probably a good technician when it comes to tank gunnery, but it’s—it’ll be the people who determine whether you’re a good leader.

Okay, now I know I told you at the end of this, I would have to jump up to the lofty levels of who’s your favorite historical figure. I have a couple actually, and they’re all for different reasons. Winfield Scott, in the end of a—not a famous name, really. John M. Schofield, you know, leaders who, after the Civil War, much after, actually, began to put together the professional force we have today, who took what was a grotesquely hideous and complex political environment, we had Reconstruction in the South, and a Northern climate where we continued to try to punish the South for their transgressions during the Civil War. So guys like that were able to not only unit the military, but unite the nation which was kind of phenomenal.

Ulysses S. Grant, as he came into service and finally became the leader that Lincoln was looking for, and I do mean it exactly that way. I mean, what this nation and our military owe the commander in chief is a leader who he can trust, and you know, famously Lincoln was casting aside really reluctant and timid Northern generals for quite some time.

Robert E. Lee, because of what he did at the end of the war, I mean he could have encouraged the South and the Confederate Army to become an insurgency, and our country would have been suffering for another ten or fifteen years, incredible moral courage in the face of that decision.

And then I’ll just fast forward through and to George Marshall, who I think is probably our best military leader throughout our entire history with the possible exception of George Washington and I’ll come to him in a moment. But George Marshall, as you know, desperately wanted to go serve in either the European theater or the Pacific theater, but he became the indispensable man at the strategic level working with FDR, working with some incredible personalities who were military leaders, you know, guys like MacArthur and Eisenhower and Patton, Bradley, Nimitz, Halsey, you know, fill in the blanks, all of whom had huge personalities and he was the leader who held it all together, really and found a way to do that. And at the end of his military service, the story famously—he was retiring and the President called and asked him if he would go off to be the ambassador to China. You know, imagine going home and telling your wife that after you’ve just slugged your way through a war with her seeing a little less of you than she probably wanted to, Secretary of State, Secretary of Defense. You know, there’s a man who truly served, you know.

Now going all the way to Washington who at the end of the Revolutionary War, you famously remember in Newburg, New York, when the officer corps was about to mutiny because the Continental Congress had failed to appropriate money to keep the force solid, and in fact, to pay them. Washington rode up and was able to in a way, when you look back on it, how was it possible, but he was able to fundamentally talk them out of it by simply pointing out what they had fought for. And what they had fought for was so important in history that to do anything else but support it would have just been unthinkable, unimaginable, and in fact what he did was—and I often wonder whether he did it on purpose or if it was just captured—he pulled out, he took his glasses off, and he pulled out a handkerchief he was cleaning them and said, “You’ll have to forgive me, but I’ve lost my sight in the service of my nation.”

Pentagon Channel: Wow. Sir, your insights have been fascinating and it was a pleasure and an honor to meet you. Thank you for your time.

GEN Dempsey: Thank you.

Pentagon Channel: Appreciate it.

GEN Dempsey: Yeah thanks.

Watch the full interview here.