Leadership by Example

by COL Don M. Snider, USA (Ret.)

The author  spoke on fulfilling the obligations of a commission at an ROTC Commissioning Ceremony at the University of California, Los Angeles. His remarks follow.

This is clearly a wartime moment, one of great poignancy for each of you and your families and dear friends gathered here. It is also perhaps one of great ambiguity since we do not really know how we, as a nation, are progressing in the Iraqi war, and yet recognize that you may well join it in just a matter of months.

I am speaking of the ambiguity that normally exists within those uninitiated to the rigors, as well as the horrors, of war. It is an ambiguity that in part exists because you do not yet have an answer to the question that resides in every soldier's heart, "How will I do, over there?"

Such questions are unanswerable, but they can still cause very uncomfortable, hand-wringing exercises within the mind and the soul. I have learned over the years that the best way to address them is to work on what you can know about yourself and your preparations, rather than on what you cannot know. Soldiers cannot predict in advance their performance in battle, but in a very clearheaded way, informed by the experiences of the millions who have gone before, they can focus on who they must be, and from that character what they must be able to do, to be successful in combat, to meet the officers' obligations as warriors, as servants, as professionals and as leaders of character.

Let me explain.

In a few minutes, by swearing to the oath of office, you will assume the awesome responsibilities of your formal commission. The oath itself is simple and deliberately unconditional, a whole of five parts. In sequence you will swear:

  • To support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic.
  • To bear truth, faith and allegiance to the same.
  • That you take this obligation freely, without mental reservation or purpose of evasion.
  • That you will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which you are about to enter.
  • So help me God.

So, what obligation flows naturally and concisely from this oath? What is the obligation that you are assuming, that you can never take off or lay down, that will remain with you 24 hours a day, every single day you remain on active duty? What is it about this obligation of the officer that caused the military historian S.L.A. Marshall to describe it famously as the "exceptional and unremitting" responsibility?

I submit for your consideration this morning that it is the moral nature of your commission that gives its obligation such nobility and severity, especially in time of war. Simply states, it is the fact that you are about to become a self-bonded servant of the American people; you are going to become their moral agent, uniquely positioned with legal authority to lead within the Army profession, responsible to keep it effective at what it does and responsive to the will of the people. And what it does is to provide to the people the security they need and cannot provide for themselves, and to do so in a manner in which they approve. Remember, Americans not only expect you to win their battles, but also to do so rightly as they define it.

Further, the American people are going to provide their living sons and daughters for you and your noncommissioned officers to develop into Army warriors and to lead in combat on their behalf, to defend this otherwise defenseless nation. Thus, morally, your obligation, very simply stated, is to do right by and for the American people in defending their Constitution, nation and way of life. And you will do that by winning the necessary battles and returning, as best you can, the whole lives of their children to them after combat. And that must be seen as an intensely moral, rather than legal, obligation.

So how are you going to do that? How are you going to be able to fulfill this deeply moral obligation? From my experience, you are going to do it by developing within yourself both military competence and moral character.

I have no doubt that the Army will fully assist you in developing your tactical skills and other military competencies. The Army does know how to train and then to adapt that expertise to new situations as we are doing in Afghanistan and Iraq, and they do it well, the best in the world I might add. And, if they do not, then, it goes without saying that the Army will not contribute militarily to subduing the insurgencies in those two locations.

But it takes far more than tactical competence to fulfill your obligations as an officer. It takes, secondly, moral character of the highest sort in every commissioned leader, particularly as our Army fights the dirty battles of urban warfare as initiated by terrorists, jihadists, criminals and thugs. Even more, it takes this highest moral character coupled with the personal courage to exercise it routinely, to be the moral exemplar within your command. This is something soldiers in combat will discern in a flash, for they earnestly seek it in their leaders.

I must note that the display and use of such moral character is the one big difference between where you have been here at UCLA and where you are going. In the civilian world Americans now live, by and large, in a world of hyper-individualism and moral relativism, one of excessively tolerant pluralism that frowns on anyone who would state forthrightly for others what is good or evil, right or wrong. In stark contrast, in the military profession you serve an absolute ethic-death on the battlefield is not relative to anything except life. Thus, as a commissioned Army leader it is your duty always not only to know what is right, but with courage to announce it and lead others to choose in their own behavior the harder right over the easier wrong. The best way to illustrate such a moral exemplar is with a story.

Decades ago as a lieutenant in 1964, I was to be aide to our new brigade commander, who was also a new brigadier general just arriving on Okinawa. At one of our first meetings, I asked him what my duties were. Mind you, he was a World War II and Korean War veteran with six Silver Stars and Five Purple Hearts; he had fought from Omaha beach to the Ruhr and later for two years in Korea. Needless to say I was a bit apprehensive, but his answer was profound. He said, "Let me tell you first what my duty is. It is always to conduct myself so that every officer in this brigade wants to be like me and, some day, to be in my position. And your responsibility, lieutenant, is to tell me whenever any lieutenant or captain sees that I am not doing that."

You see, this remarkable officer had learned in more than five years on the battlefields of Europe and Korea what it takes for a leader to earn the trust of subordinates, and, as well, the trust of the American people he had, like you, sworn to serve. He had learned that he could best fulfill the obligation of his commission when he was every bit the tactically competent, moral example within his unit, whatever the level of command may be. He taught that to me and I applied it during my three combat tours in Vietnam and beyond, and I am now passing this wisdom on to you.

What I am suggesting to you straightforwardly is that you must model moral excellence, on duty and off duty, in training and, most important, in combat, 24/7 as you cadets say, and to accept fully that responsibility as your daily duty. Of course, your soldiers will listen politely to what you have to say about what is right and what is wrong, but my advice is to say as little as necessary. For they will take their real cue as to your trustworthiness from your own actions, hour by hour, day by day, battle by battle. As Marshall stated, the responsibility of the officer truly is "exceptional and unremitting."

So my advice this morning is simple and straightforward. Moral character is the one thing the Army cannot give to you; you have to develop it within yourself. To be sure, the Army will give you repeated opportunities, with excellent guidance, to develop such character, as have your parents and friends over the years, and even more recently this educational institution and the ROTC program within it. Thus you already have much to draw on morally.

But the fact remains that that wellspring of moral excellence and courage resides only within each of you; you have to choose, consciously to lead morally by setting yourself as the example every soldier in your unit should follow, as my brigade command did for me, and I did for my soldiers in Vietnam. And that, leadership by example, is the deepest privilege and the most profoundly moral obligation that the commissioned officer will ever have. I wish for each of you Godspeed in your service to America. Thank you.

COL Don M. Snider, USA (Ret.), is a professor of political science at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. He most recently served as project director and Co-editor of The Future of the Army Profession, 2nd Edition.

From ARMY Magazine, November 2005. Copyright 2005 by the Association of the U.S. Army. Limited reprint permission granted by AUSA.

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