Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told a group of public policy students and others Oct. 10 that you can’t be an effective leader without obstacles.

At the event, co-sponsored by the Georgetown Public Policy Institute (GPPI) and the Council for Emerging National Security Affairs (CENSA), Dempsey said being a leader is about “galvanizing yourself first, and then those around you to overcome obstacles.”

“In the absence of an obstacle I’m not sure there is leadership, to be honest with you,” he said.

Each year, GPPI’s Master of Policy Management program includes 20 of the Army’s best captains who will go on to hold internships in the Joint Chiefs of Staff office the following year.

“At GPPI, our students get a chance to study policy, to analyze what works and what doesn’t work,” said GPPI Dean Edward Montgomery, who introduced Dempsey. “But we know that policy programs without leadership don’t go very far, and leadership is absolutely the key to implementing and paring out the provisions we have.”

He said Dempsey has “modeled leadership for a long and distinguished career.”

The nation’s highest ranking military officer said that leadership is doubly important in challenging and uncertain times.

“It has occurred to me more than once that if you believed in leadership, when would you want to lead?” he asked. “When things are kind of on autopilot or when your service and leadership made a difference? If you’re in the camp that thinks you’d rather be serving when it makes a difference, you’ve arrived.”

Building Relationships

“One of the lessons I’ve learned in my years as a leader is that leadership starts and stops with relationships,” the general said. “Recognizing that [I have] influence, not authority, I’ve spent a great deal of my time building relationships.”

Dempsey said he spent the first six months of his tenure focused on building his relationship with the President, the Secretary of Defense and the National Security Advisor.

“I took the time to build the relationships so that I did have the gravitas of being the principal military advisor,” he explained.

Life-Long Learners

The former English professor also discussed his relationships with academia and industry.

“I love the enthusiasm, the passion, the curiosity, the interest [in academia],” said Dempsey, a self-described “voracious” reader who encouraged the audience to be life-long learners.

Dempsey also recently spent time in Silicon Valley visiting the Google, Facebook and McAfee offices.

“I … wanted to find out what technologies were emerging that I might be able to leverage either for leadership development, for training or for systems,” he said.

Story of Strength

Dempsey also told the students that the image of veterans are formed by the people who have supported them.
“There is an emerging sense…that the two million men and women who have served since 2001 have somehow become victims over the last 10 years,” he said. “But the vast majority of veterans [in those years] have actually been strengthened by the experience. They’re disciplined, they’re courageous, they’re resilient, you just can’t knock them down.”

He also said veterans are an “enormous resource to the nation as they come back and as they migrate from military life into civilian life.”

“We’ve got some challenges that collectively we have to work through but also telling the story that it’s really not a story of victimization,” he explained. “This is a story of strength.”