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Adm. Tidd Opening Remarks: U.S. Military Academy

April 12, 2018


Commander of U.S. Southern Command, Navy Adm. Kurt W. Tidd | April 12, 2018 | U.S. Military Academy, West Point, New York

As delivered April 12, 2018

First let me say 'thank you' for the warm welcome and for the invitation to come speak to you today. Let's be honest, we Navy officers don't make it up here all that often - we weren't especially welcome for, oh maybe thirteen years or so. Funny, that seems to have changed recently ... Especially after what happened last December ... And the December before that!

And for me, I have to confess, this last temporary aberration was doubly painful. .. Before the game I made a friendly wager with our USSOUTHCOM deputy -and West Point grad- Lieutenant General Joe Disalvo. I don't show this picture very often, but I did want you to see that I am a man of honor ... And I pay my debts.

Seriously though, good afternoon, firsties! It's great to be here at this prestigious institution surrounded by the next generation of army leaders. I guess we need a plebe in here to find out how many days left until graduation?

I’m really excited about your future because I think this is simply a very interesting time to be joining the profession of arms.

As you've undoubtedly studied over the last four years, everything you think you know about our world will change.

When I entered the navy back in 1974 as a midshipman, we were in the midst of a seemingly endless cold war with the Soviet Union. We lived in a solidly bipolar world and we knew exactly who the enemy was. Until we didn't.

Fast forward to 1990, when I found myself stationed at NATO headquarters. Who knew the cold war and great power confrontation would come crashing to an end with the sudden collapse of the berlin wall, and we'd enter a fundamentally different era?

A little over a decade later I had just returned from the backwater of Bahrain, in the Persian Gulf; I’d recently reported in to the Navy Staff, in the Pentagon, when our world changed again on a beautiful clear Tuesday morning in September. The attacks of 9/11 started another dramatic shift in our focus. And I would tell you that today, I think we once again sit on the precipice of a transition back to something somewhere between those first couple of worlds.

I’m happy to talk more about that, Southern Command, or leadership advice during what I hope will be a rich Q&A period, but first I want to do something a little different with my remarks.

Today I will attempt one of the most difficult military maneuvers known to man. I will translate 'old guy' speak into the words of your generation. I’m not exactly sure how this is going to work out; let's find out together!

Almost everywhere I go I talk about four military imperatives. These imperatives are essential to military advantage and are the foundation of the trust we share among our teammates and with the nation.

I care very deeply about this, both professionally, and personally because getting these imperatives right, bringing them to life, it's the difference between truly winning and simply struggling, it's the difference between being great... And being in the way. These imperatives are characteristics; they describe an organization. In no particular order, because they are completely interdependent, these imperatives are:

1. Profound respect for human rights. Failure to treat each person with respect and dignity jeopardizes mission success, undermines public support for our efforts, and endangers our democracies.

Respect for human rights provides the moral and ethical fabric of our profession.

Our citizens and civilian leaders must be able to trust that we legitimately exercise our authority. They must be able to trust that we protect innocent civilians. They must be able to trust that we protect our core democratic values and meet the obligations of international laws.

2. True jointness. Embracing a joint and interagency mindset. I hope everyone in this room knows the security challenges we face into today's complex world can't be solved by any one service, agency, or nation. They require joint, interagency, intergovernmental, and multinational cooperation.

Strength and success lie in diversity. When we operate as a team, across services and agencies, our security forces gain the versatility they need to succeed in a variety of missions.

Integrating service cultures and competencies, fostering trust and mutual confidence across the intelligence community, law enforcement, the diplomatic corps, and with NGOs, and operating together as one ensures we can meet the demands of the 21st security environment.

As you start your military careers, I encourage you to find ways to deepen cooperation across the entire spectrum of the military services and governmental agencies.

3. The development of a professional noncommissioned officer corps. A professional, strong, capable NCO corps is the backbone of our force and we cannot be effective leaders without their support.

The NCO corps ensure our subordinates have the skills and capabilities required to excel in any situation. They instill the ethos and values to ensure we never betray the public trust. They instill and sustain our core values across generations. They are the guardians of our traditions, and the guarantors of our future.

You're firsties, so you probably think you know pretty much everything, I thought the same thing in 1978. But if you think you know everything now, as I did, wait until you meet up with your platoon sergeant. That guy or gal will show you things that you'll never find in your field manuals or instructions. Their standard of knowledge and professionalism will raise the bar more than you can imagine. Building these enlisted leaders takes focus and dedication.

Investing in their development is essential to strengthening and cultivating our professions, and to meeting future operational challenges. It's the most important thing you can do for the army and the nation.

4. The effective institutionalization of gender perspectives, integrating the full range of perspectives, talents, and skills represented in our Security forces. This isn't about women or men, it's about effective talent management.

We've seen that military and police teams that integrate women are better able to build trust with local populations in places like Iraq, Afghanistan, and in peacekeeping missions throughout the world.

This trust helps us understand the operating environment. It improves information gathering and force protection. It enhances the legitimacy of coalition forces. And it improves operational effectiveness.

As teammates, these women demand respect, because they have earned it with their sweat, and blood, and proven valor. This is the basis of what our military is all about: that no matter where we come from, or what our last name is, we are all judged by what we accomplish, by what we sacrifice to help defend our countries. Not our race, not our creed, not our gender. There are only two things that matter -- character and competence are the only criteria for being on our team.

Well, almost everyone has heard about the recent scandal involving US Military members posting inappropriate photos of female service members on social media sites.

The perpetrators probably thought they had guaranteed anonymity, that they wouldn't get caught. They thought wrong.

The breadth and scope of this  problem  are  staggering. It was not the result of a few isolated incidents of individuals making poor decisions. It indicates a deeper problem -- a mismatch between what we say we value, and what we actually do.

These types of activities are demeaning and degrading to women --to our teammates. They are destructive to morale and mission, a violation of our values,  and an abuse of trust between teammates. Those who do this certainly don't respect their teammates. But they also don't respect themselves or hold themselves accountable to a higher standard. They didn't ask themselves a simple question - "who do I want to be today?"

I will say it again, the only criteria to be on our team are character, and competence. There are some in our military, perhaps some in this room, who think they have a right to add additional discriminators to that equation; to personally validate who is a "real" team member. It might be gender, it might be how many pushups you can do, or how fast you can run, or something else that ultimately distracts from what really matters...

Stop judging by any criteria except character, competence, and contribution.

Ultimately, excelling against complex security challenges -- whether those are violent extremist organizations or nation states -- is not a matter of 'being joint' or 'embracing diversity.'

It's about the ideas we generate, the creativity we cultivate, and the problems we solve, together.

It's about the effective teams we build, and how we lead them.

It's about trust.

These four interdependent imperatives are the hallmarks of modern, capable defense forces.

These aren't 'nice to do's...they aren't fashionable, politically correct, agenda-driven bumper stickers. After nearly forty years service as a commissioned officer, I honestly believe they are 'must do's' if we want to succeed against today's security threats.

By effectively internalizing these imperatives, we form a mindset that ensures our military continues to field the best possible teams -- teams we will need to safeguard our security into the future. These apply to our US Military, just as they apply to our partners in Latin America and to every modern military in the world.

I believe they also apply to your time here at West Point, and to you personally. Whether you leave here and you serve the nation in uniform for five years or forty years, the mindset formed by these ideas is the foundation for a life well lived.

These aren't just useful for those of you who will continue on in the military ... So how do you go about translating these imperatives into useful guideposts? Well, we're all familiar with the notion of some basic rules to live by. We old sailors sometimes call them thumbrules, but there's a more modern term that you're probably already familiar with -- "life hacks." so let me see if I can give you a few life hacks that will help you put these military imperatives into action...

Life Hack #1: Do the Right Thing. At West Point you've been introduced to a set of values that will guide everything you do. These values are a code. They are principles to live by.

In the military, doing the right thing means respecting human rights. It means protecting innocent civilians. It means following rules on the battlefield and never, never taking matters into your own hands. Because if we do, we break faith with those we serve. We undermine our mission. We lose legitimacy.

In life, doing the right thing should be easy, because we all know what "right" looks like. But just as you learned here in the crucible of beast barracks, and you will relearn in your first real leadership challenge but out there, in the real army... Doing the right thing is actually really hard. You won't always want to do it. You'll want to cut corners, 'just this once.' you'll want to look the other way. You'll want to keep quiet and stay seated, when you should stand up and speak out. And what you'll find is that what matters most about who you are as a person really comes down to the little day to day decisions you make, not the big ones.

The way you behave when you're on own, when no one's looking-that's when it really counts. When you're confronted by terrible things -- by racism or sexism or discrimination... When you see cruelty or selfishness ... You have a choice. At that moment, it's not really about the person making a racist comment, or treating someone badly. Doing the right thing depends less on what's in their hearts and more about what might be in yours. So always... Do the right thing.

Life Hack #2: Cross Boundaries. In the military and in life, you will find that strength and success lie in diversity. When we operate as a team, across the us coast guard, navy, army, air force, and Marines, we gain the versatility we need to succeed in a variety of missions and battlefields.  We learn to fight as one.  We learn about different service cultures and different capabilities.  We learn to trust one another, and rely on each other.

The security challenges we face in today's complex world can't be solved alone. In today's world, we succeed through partnerships.

It's the same in life. Stick with your same circle of friends, and you'll be safe... But you won't be great. Be willing to branch out, learn from others who aren't like you, who don't think like you, and your life will be richer

For it. You'll understand the world better, and appreciate the different people and perspectives in it.

At work, you'll build stronger teams if you cast your net wide, and seek out diversity in thought, in actions, and in beliefs. Studies have shown that diverse teams tend to be more creative and cohesive-even more so when led by leaders who value and encourage diversity of thought and experience. Be one of those team members; become one of those leaders.

Life Hack #3: Take care of and rely on your team. In the military, one of the most important things you can do as a leader is to develop those that come after you. As General Tony Thomas has said, "make it your mission to make them more successful than they are already going to be."

I've already talked about the vital role of NCOs; how they help build the team and how you need to build them.

In life, your family, your friends, and co-workers are your team. So it should be easy to take good care of them. Give them what they need-encouragement, help, advice. But the same goes for your future team mates; people you have yet to know, but whose commitment has already been proven. So learn to listen to them. Believe in them. Trust them. Help them when they need it, cheer them on and give them credit when they do it on their own. Be there for them, and they will be there for you. When you are following someone else, find ways to support and ease their load. When you are leading -- depend on others. Empower them. Invest in their growth and value their contributions. You can't say 'thank you' enough.

Life Hack #4: Respect yourself and your teammates. All your teammates. You're going to enter a military that is profoundly different from the one I joined many years ago. One of the biggest changes is the role women play in our armed forces. Just a few years ago, women were barred by law from serving in combat.  Now they're driving tanks, loading artillery, and raiding terrorist hideouts. Fully integrating women has made our military stronger and more effective.

More broadly, there is a compelling body of research outside the military that demonstrates that diverse teams tend to be more creative and cohesive-even more so when led by leaders who value and encourage diversity of thought and experience.· Be one of these teammates; be one of these leaders.

Ultimately, in uniform and in life, being part of a team means we treat each other with respect and hold each other accountable. Anything else falls short... Anything less is unacceptable.

And in life, respecting your teammates means respecting all your teammates, all the time. Remember what I said earlier about character counting when no one is looking?

So when you see or hear someone say something demeaning or degrading to a fellow teammate, remember life hack #1: do what's right. How we treat our teammates is about always doing what's right... Even on the most personal and human level.

It's about honoring the tremendous progress we have made as a nation toward ensuring that every American is valued for the content of their character and the capacities they offer, and in setting a positive example for others to follow.

So here are your standing orders:

  • Do the right thing
  • Cross boundaries
  • Take care of and rely on your team
  • Respect yourself and your teammates

If you take these life hacks and apply them, you'll be well on your way to internalizing the characteristics of the most successful modern militaries. And those characteristics are embodied in the four military imperatives I described earlier.

All of you, as young officers, aren't just pioneers of a new generation of warriors and peacekeepers, you are pioneers of a new generation of leaders who will change our country, and the world, for the better.

I envy every single one of you.

I wish you good luck and godspeed. We're counting on you to get it right.