Last Updated on June 25, 2018 by OCF Communications

by Gen C. C. Krulak, USMC, (Ret.)

“Nemo dat quod non habet” (You cannot give what you do not have!)

A military leader faces many challenges in his quest for professional excellence, not the least of which are the inevitable “personal,” ethical, and moral quandaries that confront us all. Understandably, leaders are wont to focus outwardly-on their personnel, on their unit, or upon their mission.

It sometimes becomes easy to rationalize and conclude that one can somehow distinguish between one’s private and public lives. Some believe that they can publicly espouse high moral ethical standards while secretly embracing a hidden set of private values. “Do as I say and not as I do,” however, has never been a satisfactory dictum.

Leadership, the true measure of military professional excellence, thrives upon a foundation of moral authority but languishes in the presence of double standards. The leader’s moral fitness-his qualification to lead-is judged continuously by his subordinates, and the efficacy of his efforts is tied directly to the ongoing reassessment of that fitness.

The leader, therefore, must uphold the highest standards, and set an unambiguous example. He must first tend to his own character, and then to the character of his subordinates. He must, in fact, touch his own soul before he can ever hope to touch the souls of those who serve under him. There is deep and subtle truth in the Latin expression, “Nemo dat quod non habet,” (You cannot give what you do not have). The question, then, is how does the leader obtain that which he is obliged to give?

The mantle of leadership is often heavy, and the challenges that accompany it are sometimes immense. While we tend to discount the toil, leadership remains yeoman’s work and demands absolute dedication, focused effort, and most importantly, great strength of character. Leaders must understand that the profession of arms is an altogether unique endeavor, a true “calling” and, in many ways, a spiritual undertaking.

They must recognize the true nature of the enterprise, acknowledge the spiritual dimension of their service, and appreciate the motives and expectations of their subordinates. Service members are generally distinguished by their deep conviction and sense of duty, and by their confidence in the integrity of the organizations to which they belong.

The best units are united by shared beliefs, common values, and a resilient faith in one another, in the unit, in their leader, and in God. Faith is the powerful phenomenon that has sustained warriors throughout the ages. In order to succeed, a leader must capitalize on that faith, in all its manifestations, including his subordinates’ faith in their leader’s moral fitness.

Leadership is, at heart, a social contract–a sometimes tenuous agreement between the leader and those he leads that must be jealously safeguarded. Although it may be politically incorrect to discuss moral authority, it nevertheless remains the true underpinning of leadership and the key to its preservation.

Subordinates may be supervised, directed, managed, cajoled or compelled by nearly anyone in a position of authority, but they will follow only those whom they respect, those in whom they have confidence, those in whom they have trust and, ultimately, those in whom they have faith. Leadership, the hard currency of the military, relies upon that faith and should it ever be violated, the leader’s opportunity to lead is forfeited.

The path to effective leadership and professional excellence is long, but begins for each of us with the simple act of looking into a mirror. Frank self-appraisal coupled with a genuine commitment to self-improvement, personal accountability and unyielding standards of conduct is the first important step to moral fitness and, ultimately, effective leadership. I have studied my own reflection and although I first attempted to ignore my shortcomings, necessity eventually compelled their acknowledgment.

Over the years, I have managed to gird my character with reliance on the great strength and inspiration drawn from my faith in God. I honestly believe that the Lord has worked mightily in my life, that He has guided me through the toughest of life’s challenges, and that He is responsible for any success I’ve enjoyed. In peace and in war, I have confidently gone to the deep well of my faith in hard times, and I have always found sustenance and comfort there. My experience has convinced me that spiritual faith-faith in God-must become the solid bedrock of an individual’s character.

While the leader must demonstrate the highest standards of conduct and, ideally, personify the values that define his organization, he must also ensure that those same values are instilled in his subordinates. He must endeavor to cultivate both a spiritual appreciation for them and confidence in the integrity of the institution.

In the Corps, we have long strived to imbue every Marine with a profound appreciation of our cherished “core values.” These fundamental virtues-honor, courage, and commitment-define our ethos and form a solid foundation for the lifelong growth of character and moral fitness.

As military professionals, leaders by definition, we must remember that professional excellence is, in large measure, personal excellence. We must lay plans that permit the growth of character within our subordinates and institution, and perhaps, more importantly, we must carefully tend to our own character.

We must remain ever mindful that God sustains that character and He ultimately provides that which we are obliged to give. Simply put, we must touch our souls and then the souls of our comrades, and we must always remember “Nemo dat quod non habet”-that we cannot give what we do not have.

General Krulak graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1964 and earned a master’s degree in labor relations at George Washington University in 1973. General Krulak held a wide variety of operational tours, from platoon and company command during two tours of duty in Vietnam to Commander of all Marine Forces in the Pacific. Among other posts, his staff assignments included duty at the Naval Academy, in the military office at the White House and at Headquarters, Marine Corps. He retired after serving as the 31st commandant of the Marine Corps from 1995 to 1999.