A Message on Leadership to the West Point Class of 2018

From the Office of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Public Affairs

The following is an excerpt of Marine Corps Gen. Joe Dunford’s keynote speech to the United States Military Academy Class of 2018 cadets during their graduation ceremony held at West Point, New York, May, 26, 2018. Remarks have been edited for brevity and clarity.

I want to personally thank you for answering the call to serve during a very challenging time. You chose to join an Army at war.

Today there are more than 178,000 soldiers actively supporting missions around the world. Many are in harm’s way, and they’re joined by thousands more sailors, airmen and Marines. As we celebrate today, I’d ask you to keep them and their families in your thoughts and prayers.

Dunford congratulates a U.S. Military Academy cadet during the commencement ceremony May 26, 2018. DoD photo by Army Sgt. James K. McCann

This is also Memorial Day weekend, and I’d ask you to be particularly mindful of those who have made the ultimate sacrifice and our Gold Star families.

While those of you graduating today should be proud of what you’ve accomplished, I know that you recognize you didn’t get here by yourself.

Appropriately enough, the superintendent had you recognize your families as we began the program. I think all of us on the dais have the best seat in the house today because we have the chance to look out there and see the faces of the parents, grandparents, siblings and friends – their faces beaming with pride, and they should be.

I’d also ask you to recognize the faculty and staff here at the academy. You couldn’t have the premier leadership experience in the world were it not for their efforts. And perhaps most importantly, they have shown you what right looks like and they also have reason to be proud of you today.

There were smiles abound as U.S. Military Academy cadets took their seats on the field to kick off their graduation ceremony May 26, 2018. DoD photo by Army Sgt. James K. McCann

Class of 2018, you might find it hard to imagine, but I’ve been in your shoes. Although it’s been 41 years ago this week, I can clearly recall my own graduation and commissioning and how anxious I was to get on with the next phase of my life.

I wasn’t particularly interested in what my graduation speaker had to say, and I’m going to make a bold assumption: I’m going to assume that many of you share that sentiment on graduation day about the graduation speaker.

So with that in mind, I won’t go long this morning. As you prepare for the challenges of Army leadership and the next chapter of your lives, I’d like to leave you with just a few thoughts.

The first point I would make is that the profession of arms is dynamic: To be successful, you have to anticipate and embrace the constant changes in the character of war.

Here at West Point, you have studied military history and you recall the price paid in the 20th century by armies that were slow to adapt.

One hundred years ago, leaders on both sides of World War I were slow to grasp the significance of emerging technologies and the changing character of war. The price for that delay was high – 10 million in uniform were killed, a figure that is unfathomable today.

To some extent, you can say the same about the eve of World War II. For example, while the blitzkrieg reflected the German’s appreciation for the potential of armor supported by close-air, major western armies continued to view the tank as merely an infantry support weapon.

Watch Dunford’s entire speech

Frankly, as we look back at change over the past century, most of the changes occurred after significant failure. But there were notable exceptions.

In the years before Vietnam, a small number of Army leaders considered how the helicopter might be employed to enhance mobility on the battlefield. Among them were men like Jim Gavin from the West Point class of ’29, Hamilton Howze from the class of ’30 and Hal Moore from the class of ’45. Their ideas rapidly evolved from articles and briefings to the 1965 combat deployment of the 1st Cavalry Division – airmobile.

These soldiers drove innovation that combined emerging technology with operational concepts. They fundamentally changed Army maneuver, and their ideas remain relevant today.

The moral of the story is that there is no substitute for taking a clear-eyed look at the threats we will face and asking how our force must adapt to meet those threats.

Marine Corps Gen. Joe Dunford renders honors alongside Army Lt. Gen. Robert Caslen, superintendent of the U.S. Military Academy, while the national anthem plays during the commencement ceremony for the U.S. Military Academy Class of 2018. DoD photo by Army Sgt. James K. McCann

There is no substitute for leaders like Jim Gavin who recognize the power of new ideas, new technologies and new concepts. More importantly, there is no substitute for leaders like Hal Moore with a bias for action and the drive to affect change. And for the Class of 2018, I believe the need to aggressively lead change is going to be particularly important to you.

I say that because the pace of change and the speed of war has greatly accelerated, and, in many ways, the environment you’re going to lead in is very different than the one that confronted lieutenants in 1918, 1968, or frankly, even in 2008.

So regardless of where you find yourself serving in our Army, challenge yourself to be the kind of leader that continues to think about, write about, and lead change. Bring your intellectual curiosity and your openness to new ideas that you established here at West Point, bring that with you forward in your days as an Army leader.

Be inspired by those soldiers who pioneered air assault and the many others who have enabled the Army to adapt and win throughout our nation’s history.

U.S. Military Academy cadets react after receiving their diplomas during their graduation ceremony, May 26, 2018. DoD photo by Army Sgt. James K. McCann

Class of 2018, earlier I mentioned how clearly I remember my graduation day and how disinterested I was in the speaker, but there is something else I remember about the day I was commissioned.

Like you, I had studied military history and I remember finding it difficult to identify with the exploits and courage of those who went before me.

I remember wondering how I would meet the expectations of my future platoon. How would I respond if I was called to lead them in harm’s way? Or how would I deal with tough leadership issues that we know we will all experience? I wondered if I would remember anything that I learned in school.

You may be sitting here at this point having similar thoughts. You may wonder how you’ll measure up to your predecessors: the Pattons, the Eisenhowers or the Bradleys.

Closer to home, you may wonder how you’ll measure up to some of the leaders who have influenced you here at West Point.

U.S. Military Academy cadets march onto the field to kick off their graduation ceremony May 26, 2018. DoD photo by Army Sgt. James K. McCann

But if you look at how these leaders succeeded, I believe you’ll recognize the method. And you’ll remember that the fundamentals of leadership are the most important aspect of our profession. And they are a part of our profession that hasn’t changed since President Jefferson founded this institution in 1802.

The primary reason your predecessors were successful is that they recognized that after West Point, it was no longer about their individual capabilities. They knew it was about their team. They knew it was about instilling an esprit in their units and a will to fight in their individual soldiers. They knew it was about establishing a bond of absolute trust between the leaders and the led. In the end, they knew that character, competence, courage and commitment are all part of the sticker price of being an Army leader. After West Point, you get no more credit for that – it’s a given.

When you check into your units, your soldiers will just want to know that you’ll lead from the front and put their interests ahead of your own.

To paraphrase one of your more quotable predecessors, General George Patton: “Wars may be fought with weapons, but they are won by men and women. It is the spirit of the soldiers who follow and of the officers who lead that gain victory.”

U.S. Military Academy cadets throw their hats up as their graduation ceremony concludes May 26, 2018. DoD photo by Army Sgt. James K. McCann

Class of 2018, what I’m really telling you is this: If you take care of your soldiers, they’ll take care of you. If you lead, they will follow, and together, you’ll take the hill.

Thank you in advance for taking care of the young men and women who will proudly follow your lead, and thanks for carrying on the traditions of the long gray line.

God bless you, Semper Fidelis and Army strong.

Learn more about the 950+ cadets who make up West Point’s Class of 2018:

Today’s the day! This morning, #USMA2018 will graduate from #USMA and commission into the #USArmy as second lieutenants and join the #LongGrayLine.

Posted by West Point – The U.S. Military Academy on Saturday, May 26, 2018


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