The vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff stepped up to the podium on May 2, 2014 at the Georgia Institute of Technology doctoral and master’s commencement ceremony in Atlanta to talk to the new graduates about change, leadership and humility.
Navy Adm. James A. “Sandy” Winnefeld Jr., the nation’s second-highest-ranking military officer and a 1978 Georgia Tech aerospace engineering graduate — told the graduates that every academic discipline they represented touched one or more of the major challenges facing the world.
The admiral counted off challenges the graduates will face: energy and infrastructure, population growth and hunger, water resources and climate change, the risks and opportunities associated with an interconnected world, a rapidly changing economic landscape, evolving threats to global security, and others.
“Many of you will rise to leadership in a field,” Winnefeld told them, “in business or academia or government or some other profession, charged with tackling one or more of those challenges.”
Paraphrasing Leon Trotsky, he added, “You may not be interested in change, but change is interested in you.”
Georgia Tech has equipped the graduates with the best possible foundation from which to start, the admiral said. “I would submit that you are blessed with this knowledge and thus have a responsibility to use it in some kind of positive way,” Winnefeld added. “So make the most of it.”
Having tried to emulate a few remarkable people who managed to lead change well, the admiral said, he offered what he called a few humble observations about what it takes to do so. To lead change, he told the graduates, “fundamentally, you have to do two things.”
“First, … have a good idea in which you believe, and then … push that idea through whatever poor, unsuspecting system it is in which you operate,” he said.
It’s that simple and it’s that hard, he added, but it also can be exciting, rewarding and fun.
“Leading change begins with the creative process, when someone like you challenges the assumptions and connects the dots from different fields into previously unknown combinations, then unveils either an incremental or revolutionary idea people haven’t yet seen,” Winnefeld explained. Such creative synthesis most often emerges from a single person’s mind or from a small group. It’s almost never done as a herd, he told the graduates.
Those who walk out of the ceremony with specialized diplomas and expect to lead change and to breathe life into new ideas that matter, the admiral said, will have to broaden themselves in ways that allow them to graft different — sometimes very different — expertise onto their own.
“This fusion of disparate knowledge can come to you in the most fascinating ways at the most unexpected times. … But these flashes of insight, as exhilarating as they are, don’t arrive free of charge,” he observed. “Oliver Wendell Holmes once said, ‘I wouldn’t give a fig for the simplicity on this side of complexity, but I’d give my life for the simplicity on the far side of complexity.’”
He added, “If you’re a relentlessly curious person and are willing to do the hard work to get to the other side of complexity, then you have a great start on leading the first part of change.”
Making things happen in the world requires many things, but above all, one must be bold — and surprisingly few people are, Winnefeld said, adding that he’s constantly reminded that incredibly bright adults will work long hours perfecting fundamentally flawed concepts because they aren’t bold enough to break out of the existing paradigm.
“Someone has to lead them out of all this, and that would be you,” he said. “Think of it as guiding people on a journey through a series of concentric circles of discovery, [and] you’ll know you’re there when other people start enthusiastically leading the change for you.”
Being bold also means taking risk, the admiral said, “which means you’re sometimes going to fail.”
“People just hate to fail, me included, but there’s simply no escaping the fact that success is the daughter of failure,” he added.
Those who reach the other side of complexity and lead people through the concentric circles will experience the exhilaration of change, the admiral told the graduates.
“What will it look like?” Winnefeld asked them. “Well, you might change the underlying framework for looking at a problem. We’ve had to do a lot of that lately in the balancing act we call national security.”
Or they might increase agility by breaking things down into more granular bits so they can better be rearranged into better and faster combinations, he said. After all, he added, speed is life in his business, and it may be the same in the businesses of the new graduates.
“Or perhaps you might build greater versatility, the way we find new things for an existing unit, platform or person to do, and enable them to switch quickly from one role to another,” he said. “Or you might pioneer fresh integration, like how our special operations forces have fused intelligence and operations to dramatically increase their effectiveness.”
But no matter what the change looks like, he told the graduates, a little humility will do a lot of good along the way.
“I want to let you in on one of the secrets of why the U.S. has the most capable military in the world,” Winnefeld said. “The quickest way for a young fighter pilot or platoon commander or submarine watch officer to lose credibility in my business is to lack humility, by denying mistakes or taking credit where it’s not due or even taking credit where it is due.
“You don’t have to be a rock star to lead change,” he continued. “Your people will be more eager to follow you if they know they’re doing it for the betterment of something other than your own reputation.”
This, Winnefeld said, is what has motivated him throughout his career.
“Other than the privilege of working with the remarkable young men and women who wear the cloth of our nation,” he said, “the exhilaration of finding a better idea and pulling it off is what I live for in my professional life, and I hope it ends up as part of yours.”
In leaving the graduates with a final thought, the vice chairman cited some of the nation’s strengths — geography, demographics, diversity, energy and other natural resources, the freedom to be innovative, the quality of our economy, the world’s best military and excellence in higher education — “all of which refute, at least for me, any narrative that we are a nation in decline.” His hope, he added, is that the graduates will remember that America is more than just a nation.
The United States “remains an idea about freedom and liberty. And more people are trying to get into this country to share in that idea than are trying to leave,” the admiral said. “And there are hard-working young men and women out there somewhere tonight who are willing to risk their lives to keep that idea alive for you.”