Military's top officer stresses character, trust, faith to cadets

  • Published
  • By Amber Baillie
  • U.S. Air Force Academy Public Affairs
It's not every day Airmen get the chance to ask the highest ranking officer in the U.S. Armed Forces just about anything -- including what concerns keep him up at night - but first- and second-class cadets were able to do just that when the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, spoke to them in Arnold Hall Nov. 1.

The chairman spoke to the future lieutenants on the importance of upholding character, trust and faith in the military profession.

"One thing we can't fail to do is develop leaders," Dempsey said. "It'll be up to you as leaders to take imprecise information and organizations that don't fit exactly right, and weapon systems not designed for every possible outcome, and make sense of it in the context of the world in which we live."

Dempsey is the 18th Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and serves as the principle military advisor the president, the secretary of defense and the National Security Council. The U.S. Military Academy graduate was also the Army's 37th chief of staff.
Dempsey told cadets they're consumers of the military profession.

"Fundamentally we expect you to be consuming information and thoughts about what it means to be a leader," he said. "Once you graduate, you can't remain a consumer. You'll still have mentors, supervisors and commanders who will want to mold you and shape you in their image, which is an important part of our profession, but at that point you'll need to be able to produce leadership."

The chairman said the importance of character sometimes takes a backseat to competence. This should be the other way around, he said.

"Character plus competence is the way you need to think," he said. "You have to not only be the best at whatever you're assigned to or choose, such as the missile field, space, cyber or as a fighter pilot or bomber, whatever it happens to be - you need to strive to be the best at that particular skill and own the institution in the sense that people will form an impression about its values and relationship with the American people through you, based on your personal conduct on duty, off duty and in the virtual world."

Trust holds the military profession together, Dempsey said.

"Trust is the most important value," he said. "You certainly don't walk out of the forward operating base in Afghanistan unless you trust the man or woman to your right or left, in front of you or behind you, those who know what they're doing and will feel a personal responsibility not just for themselves but for their team."

Dempsey encouraged the cadets to make the most of their time in school and embrace the opportunity to explore controversial ideas and develop the ability to think deeply and critically. He emphasized ". . . the value of reading," saying that books can challenge our thinking.

The chairman cited a particular book he read in which he questioned the author's defeatism, but went on to note that he had learned from that author as well. He encouraged the auditorium full of faculty and cadets to have faith and to trust that this nation will remain exceptional, influential and a global power.

"When you lose faith you surrender," Dempsey said. "In our profession you only lose when you acknowledge defeat. That's the spirit you need graduating from here. You need to understand that the nation cannot afford for you to be defeated. At no point have the service chiefs and I ever lost trust in each other and we will not. We cannot ... and you can't lose trust internally and externally with the profession you're going to serve."

One cadet wanted to know Dempsey's thoughts on how to achieve, maintain or recover good character.

"I don't think a failure of character is irrevocable," Dempsey said. "You have to hold that person accountable but it doesn't mean you have to declare them an abject failure. I do think it's hard in our profession to overcome failure of integrity, but you can fail every once in a while and recover from it - I have. I think you have to experience, or in some way confront failure, in order to really know who you are."

Another cadet asked Dempsey what to do when someone violates trust or begins to lose faith.

"You have to hold them accountable," Dempsey said. "Then you have to look and see where there is a systemic problem and where it's unique to that individual. Also, trust your instincts. By the time you graduate from here and matriculate through the ranks, you'll develop those instincts. Pay attention to them."

Air Force officers are responsible for bridging the relationship between civilian leaders and the military, Dempsey said.

"Fundamentally, we are the continuity in terms of national security and it's our obligation to help civilian leaders understand how best we think they can meet the needs and give them advice on how to integrate what we do, into what they're trying to do," he said.

Dempsey told cadets to embrace and honor the uncommon life they've chosen to live.

"The way we look at the world should be through the lens of this uncommon commitment to trust as a starting point, try to make a difference and never acknowledge defeat. If you do that I can feel like I can turn this incredible profession over to you with great confidence that it will be ready when the nation needs it whenever, wherever to do whatever."