Monday, May 30, 2011

Memorial Day Memories

My son, Peter, sent me this picture a few weeks ago. The naval officer with the big, black, bushy beard in the foreground is yours truly. It was taken at the change of command ceremony of the USS Alacrity (MSO-520) in 1972. He found it while going through a shoebox of old photos at his H.S. reunion. I didn’t even know the picture existed.
I was the Chief Engineer of the Alacrity at the time. I was 23 years old. By the time I was 24, I would be the ship’s second in command -- its Executive Officer (the XO in naval parlance). Although I didn’t enjoy shipboard life (it wasn’t exactly Carnival Cruise Lines) and hated being away from home, I still think of it as the best job I ever had.

I was an east coast sailor during the wind up of the war in Vietnam. I never saw any combat and never won any medals. However, the military was the experience of my formative years. While others were going to parties or going to business school, I was going to sea.

Think about how those first years out of school have formed who you are. Can you imagine how fortunate I was to learn life lessons from Vice Admiral Al Konetzni (he was only a Lieutenant when he was my Company Officer at the Naval Academy) and Rear Admiral Joseph Barth (he was a Captain when I served under him).

Who are our heroes?

The military gets good press these days. I view it as a positive that the names of Petraeus, Powell and Schwarzkopf are spoken in heroic phrases. Societies need heroes. It is part of the glue that holds us together.

Every experience in my life, both good and bad, has taught me something. From the military, I learned lessons of leadership. It was the culture we lived in. Its constructs were well defined and spoken out loud. First in classes at the Naval Academy; later embedded in the daily routine discussions about how we carried out our responsibilities.

Recently, a friend asked me over dinner when I thought our nation had lost its way. “It’s a bit self-serving,” I replied. “But, I think it was the day the draft ended.” The lessons of the “Greatest Generation”, the WW II generation, were about shared sacrifice, a sense of civic responsibility and the possibilities of human endeavor. They knew how lucky they were to be Americans and had a sense of responsibility to the larger society. It was best expressed by JFK in his famous line, “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country”.

The Baby Boomers who followed seem to me to have lost that sense. If the 1970’s were the Me Decade, it was because, in the aftermath of the 60’s none of the old rules applied. We got MBA’s and law degrees and pursued self-interest rather than the national interest.

The results are now well documented. The best and brightest among us are funneled into Wall Street jobs and learn to embrace a culture of avarice. Our media celebrates the misdeeds of professional athletes and movie stars. Journalism is focused more on profitable enterprise than the responsibility to inform our citizens.

Leadership Defined

In the midst of it all, I was struck by the words of Robert Gates, the Secretary of Defense who gave the commencement address at my alma mater yesterday. He defined leadership in terms of conviction, self-confidence and courage. But he didn’t stop there. He went on to discuss the personal attributes of common decency and integrity. These are just words, right? We have heard this speech a million times in our lives. However, at a time when our economy is still reeling from the aftermath of Wall Street’s misdeeds, I ask you to listen carefully to Gates’ words which I quote here:

“Nowadays, it seems like integrity — or honor or character — is kind of quaint, a curious, old-fashioned notion. We read of too many successful and intelligent people in and out of government who succumb to the easy wrong rather than the hard right — whether from inattention or a sense of entitlement, the notion that rules are not for them. But for a real leader, personal virtues — self-reliance, self-control, honor, truthfulness, morality — are absolute. These are the building blocks of character, of integrity — and only on that foundation can real leadership be built.”

From my mother, I learned the difference between right and wrong. From my father, the value of hard work. But, it was the military that taught me how to make it work in my daily life. The lessons of leadership were there for me to learn. Have I always been perfect? No, I haven’t. But, belief in those lessons continues to guide me and I am grateful for having learned them.


  1. Dad - thank you for the years you have served and your commitment to the responsibility of leadership.

  2. John,
    I don't think our young leaders are as far away from what we were than you think. After teaching at USNA for 13 years I believe they have the honor and integrity necessary to make the hard, right decisions. Society had changed, but those willing to step forward understand that it takes moral courage to make the touch decisions.
    The Ethics course provided for youngsters is an opportunity to expose the leaders with wisdom and experience. While we can not change how they arrived at USNA, we can offer the chance to think outside the box about the difficulties of leadership.

  3. I work with young parents and children (the children and grandchildren of Baby Boomers) on a daily basis and worry about the future when self-aggrandizement and avarice are the norms rather than self-sacrifice and concern for the common good and future generations. Thank you for your insight. CathyRaye

  4. Dad, you make me proud. Proud to be your son. To this day I have an itch to server for the greater good. I think it was your influence, whether you admit it or not. Now I take what I learned and do my best to apply these same principles for my family.

  5. I have said for a long time that many of the problems in our country today relate to the end of the draft. And while I was born at a time post-draft, the lack of personal responsibility & accountability from many in our country would not be near as prevalent with mandatory service for all (men & women). I still think you should run for President.