Dempsey, basketball luminaries give Nellis Airmen master class in leadership

  • Published
  • By Jim Garamone
  • DoD News Features, Defense Media Activity
About a 1,000 Airmen from Nellis Air Force Base received a master class in leadership from three proven leaders Aug. 13. 

Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; Mike Krzyzewski, the Duke University basketball coach; and Jerry Colangelo, the USA Basketball chairman and managing director, shared their experiences and philosophies as part of the Hoops for Troops partnership between USA Basketball and the Defense Department.

ESPN’s Jay Bilas served as the facilitator of the discussion.

Dempsey is the highest-ranking service member in DOD and has commanded at every level of the military. Krzyzewski’s Duke teams have won five NCAA championships, and he coached USA Basketball to two Olympic gold medals. Colangelo, a sports mogul, revived USA Basketball after some disappointing international competitions and he fashioned the teams that have gone 75-1 during his tenure.

Expertise, humility and courage

Krzyzewski and Colangelo agreed with Dempsey’s listing of the attributes of a good leader – expertise, humility and courage. Expertise is important because people need to be able to do their jobs, Dempsey said. 

“I’m not going anywhere near that airplane unless I have confidence that somebody in this hangar knows how to maintain it, or if you’re the pilot, you want to know for sure that your maintenance chief has the expertise necessary to allow you to take that platform into combat,” he said. The military is not a world that accepts mediocrity.

The second attribute is humility, which Dempsey called the foundation of trust.

“If we have a relationship based on humility and it leads to trust, trust becomes relationships and relationships then allow you to actually understand the leader-to-led aspect of our business,” he said.

The third attribute is courage, the chairman said. While physical courage is important, just as important is moral courage, he said.

“Do the right thing when nobody’s looking,” Dempsey continued. 

Leadership: A team sport

All three men stressed that leadership is a team sport – meaning everyone needs to cultivate leadership traits. 

“In the United States military, we consider ourselves to be the pre-eminent leader development institution … in the world, really,” Dempsey said. “Every one of those young men and women out there has the potential to become the chief of staff of the Army or the senior enlisted adviser to the chairman or … the chief of staff of the Air Force.”

Dempsey said the military’s motivation is to protect the nation, but military members are inspired by each other. He noted that the youngest Marine killed in the attack on a recruiting post in Chattanooga, Tennessee, Lance Cpl. Squire Wells, was not running out of the building, but running into it to protect his fellow Marines. 

“That’s what inspiration looks like in the military,” he said.

Leadership is about getting everyone on a team to contribute, Krzyzewski said. He asks his teams if two is better than one? “And the guys say, ‘Yes, two is better than one,” he said. “Not necessarily, two is only better than one if two can act as one.”

Everybody can be a leader

According to Krzyzewski, what leadership does is get the unit or team to act as one.

“I understand that you all are different ranks, but everybody can be a leader,” he said. 

Krzyzewski, who graduated from the U.S. Military Academy in 1969, said the best leadership stories are not from the generals, but “from that private, from that sergeant, from that lieutenant. Your leadership is not about your rank. Every one of you can be leaders, and that’s when a unit is really good, when everyone … contributes.”

Colangelo said leadership can sometimes be the willingness to fail while taking a calculated risk.

“When I think about the three of us who are sitting up here from different backgrounds but very similar – an Irish background of immigrants, Italian, Polish -- it just illustrates that in this country it doesn’t matter where you are, who you are, what your beginnings are; the sky is the limit if you shoot for that star, if you’re willing to take some risks,” he said. 

“To me, leadership in that framework is the willingness to fail, knowing that in order to get to your objective, you may have to fall first,” he continued. “Most of us would say that we learned more from our defeats than we did our victories. That’s certainly been the case in my life.”

Need for balance

Dempsey spoke about the need for balance between personal ambition and humility.

“I want you to be ambitious inside … the left and right limits … of what’s best for your unit and your country,” he said. 

Humility does not mean meek and does not preclude competition. But there must be a balance, the general said. “I want you to be both ambitious and competitive.” 

It’s best to be yourself when motivating people and units, Dempsey said.

“There’s nothing worse than someone who’s incapable of being George Patton trying to be George Patton,” he said. “You’ve seen it -- normally you end up with a bunch of four-letter words strung together that end with a hoo-ah or something. And it doesn’t make it right.”

Personal example

The chairman gave a personal example from when he commanded the 1st Armored Division in Iraq in 2004. Many units in the division had already redeployed back to Germany when Baghdad exploded. The only solution was to bring those units back and extend those still in country. 

“I started going around from unit to unit and explaining … why it was important for us to do this, that we wouldn’t do it if it wasn’t important,” he said. “At one point I remember this one guy in the front row, kind of fidgeting. I said have I said something that upsets you in some way? And he said, ‘no, sir.’ But he said, ‘Look, I’ll tell you, we trust you. If you tell us it’s important enough to stay, we’re with you.’ 

I’ll tell you, I was so moved by that, you know, that we had the kind of trust,” he continued. “And that, by the way, that’s about as much motivation as anyone could possibly build.”