Space pioneer offers words of wisdom

SCHRIEVER AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. - Flunking my commissioning physical at the U.S. Naval Academy (my eyesight had become so bad that I wasn’t qualified for sea command), I went to the Air Force liaison officer and asked him if they would take me. He said, “Of course.” To which I responded, “What will you do with me? You just fly airplanes.” His response was prophesy. “I’m going to send you to guided missile school, son. Someday we will be in space.” I graduated in June 1957; Sputnik went up in October 1957.

As the Cold War intensified, the world was a frightening place. The Soviet Union wanted to destroy our way of life, to enslave us, by coercive use of a military arsenal that was hidden behind an Iron Curtain, including nuclear weapons. Knowing what went on behind that Iron Curtain was critical to our nation's survival and to making the world safer for our children, our grandchildren and future generations.

It was the opportunity of a lifetime to be a part of the National Security space age. Rank was never a prerequisite for being assigned a task---TACAMO  (Take Charge and Move Out---a Navy expression) was. As second lieutenant, I was performing what senior officers also were doing. We operated in the new medium of space. It transformed the national security environment of my day. Collectively, these efforts turned the tide of the Cold War, enabled us to see, hear and know what was going on behind the Iron Curtain, and to develop an awesome fighting force of land, naval and air combat forces to deter and contain those adversarial forces, helping cause the collapse of the Soviet Union and its nuclear threat.

Today, the American people look to you to lead the way.  A survey from Harvard’s Kennedy School for Government Center for Public Leadership shows Americans have significantly higher confidence in military leaders--that’s you--than in government leaders, business or the media.

From my years of service and many mistakes, what major lessons do I pass to the new generation of military leaders?  Ethics and integrity are No. 1, 2, 3 and 4--all else follows. Focus on mission. That’s why we are here. Keep your eye on the ball; do what is right not what flawed policies, rules or regulations say. Demand they be changed to do what is right. The mission is to provide operational military capabilities vital to our nation's survival and our freedom. Break down barriers that prevent sensible solutions. Focus on those you serve; make them understand the right way ahead. Your boss is not always right. Focus on the future. You are responsible for the freedom of future generations.

As you gain rank, remember good managers only do things right; good leaders do the right things. Operate outside of the box. Followers never fail; that’s how you become a leader. Don’t issue orders and expect them to be followed. Roll up your sleeves, get your fingernails dirty, and lead by doing. Empower your people--they will excel if you do.

Make change your baseline; never be satisfied with the status quo.

What do you need to do? TACAMO! Make sure what you do is what is right in support of the true mission.

Never think about what to do to get promoted. Do the above and you will serve your country best. Promotions will follow.

When I was serving in the White House, my boss Brent Scowcroft’s deputy, showed me the Air Force brigadier generals list, and said my name was not on it; but said Brent wanted to know if I wanted the last name crossed out and my name written in by President Ford. My response was absolutely not, I did not come here to serve as a political appointee. I came to serve my nation’s security. If the Air Force isn’t going to promote me, I don’t want a promotion. I simply want to do my best.

Today’s world is full of violence, conflicts and potential for large-scale war. In this world, the military profession, with its essential role in protecting our freedom and way of life, cannot be left to the untrained and uncommitted. We need the best--that is you.

Leadership and excellence require more from you. Adopt a questioning attitude. Ask why you do things a certain way. The world is changing around us and changing our way of doing business. Air Force doctrine also must change. Be in the forefront. You must dare to be different---be a leader.

To close my message, I’ll quote President John F. Kennedy, “Ask not what your country can do for you--ask what you can do for your country.”