Sec Def speaks out for driving change

Whether you read the Air Force Academy or Naval Academy versions of the speech, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates is asking cadets and midshipmen to drive change.

In his remarks, Secretary Gates encouraged our future military leaders to:

  • Learn from the experiences and the setbacks of the past;
  • Be open to ideas and inspiration from wherever they come;
  • Overcome conventional wisdom and the bureaucratic obstacles thrown in your path; and
  • Be candid and speak truth to power.

I’m cheered by the presence of both speeches because they let me highlight two of my favorite change drivers, Admiral Rickover and Colonel Boyd.  Let’s turn to Secretary Gates’ comments on each.

Few graduates of this institution were as brilliant, iconoclastic, and as, difficult as Hyman Rickover. He demanded efficiency and he hated waste in all forms, he was a person who first pilfered and then horded the little bars of soap from airline and hotel bathrooms. When interviewing young officers, he used to cut the legs of chairs short to see whether or not the interviewee could remain seated – not a technique that will endear you to your future subordinates.
In the 1950s the conventional wisdom was the nuclear reactors were too bulky and dangerous to put on submarines – diesel would have to do. It was through Rickover’s genius and tenacity that these objections were overcome, producing a submarine fleet that included the most stealthy and feared leg of America’s nuclear triad. Rickover was a stickler for safety in all phases of submarine production and operations – and because of that he was even accused letting us fall behind the Soviets. But he had the vision to see that even one nuclear disaster might well kill the program altogether. And his legacy is that to this day, there has never been a nuclear failure in an American submarine.
There is also the story of John Boyd – a brilliant, eccentric, stubborn, and frequently profane character who was the bane of the Air Force establishment for decades.  As with Mitchell, tact wasn’t Boyd’s strong suit – and he certainly shouldn’t be used as a model for military bearing or courtesy. After all, this is a guy who once lit a general on fire with his cigar.

As a 30-year-old captain, he rewrote the manual for air-to-air combat and earned the nickname “40-second” Boyd for the time it took him to win a dogfight. Boyd and the reformers he inspired would later go on to design and advocate for the F-16 and the A-10.  After retiring, he developed the principals of maneuver warfare that were credited by a former Marine Corps commandant and a secretary of defense for the lightning victory of the first Gulf War…

Whether in those moments where you must make that split-second, singular decision, or over the longer-term as you build your career, I’d return to something John Boyd used said to his colleagues and subordinates that is worth sharing with you.  He said that one day you will come to a fork in the road.  “You’re going to have to make a decision about which direction you want to go.  If you go one way, you can be somebody.  You’ll have to make compromises and you’ll have to turn your back on your friends.  But you’ll be a member of the club and you will get promoted and get good assignments.  Or you can go the other way and you can do something – something for your country and for your Air Force and for yourself . . . If you decide to do something, you may not get promoted and you may not get good assignments and you certainly won’t be a favorite of your superiors.  But you won’t have to compromise yourself . . . To be somebody or to do something.  In life there is often a roll call.  That’s when you have to make a decision.  To be or to do?”

Here at the Air Force Academy, as with every university and company in America, there’s a focus on teamwork, consensus-building, and collaboration. Yet make no mistake, the time will come for each of you when you must stand alone in making a difficult, unpopular decision; when you must challenge the opinion of superiors or tell them that you can’t get the job done with the time and resources available; or when you will know that what superiors are telling the press or the Congress or the American people is inaccurate. There will be moments when your entire career is at risk – where you will face Boyd’s proverbial fork in the road. To be or to do.
To be ready for that moment, you must have the discipline to cultivate integrity and moral courage from here at the Academy, and then from your earliest days as a commissioned officer. Those qualities do not suddenly emerge fully developed overnight or as a revelation after you have assumed important responsibilities. These qualities have their roots in the small decisions you will make here and early in your career and must be strengthened all along the way to allow you to resist the temptation of self before service. And you must always ensure that your moral courage serves the greater good: that it serves what is best for the nation and our highest values – not a particular program nor pride nor parochialism.
For the good of the Air Force, for the good of the armed services, and for the good of our country, I urge you to reject convention and careerism.  I urge you instead to be principled, creative, and reform-minded – to be leaders of integrity who, as Boyd put it, want to do something, not be somebody.

But for my childhood asthma I’d be an Air Force Academy grad.  If not for a whim of fate–and the keen eye of Dave Doerr selecting me out of a pile of resumes–I’d not have worked in Admiral Rickover’s program.

Admiral Rickover and Colonel Boyd have taught me to choose to do something.

I choose to drive change.

How about you?

Are you up for doing something?

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