Admiral Michael G. “Mike” Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, speaking April 21 to troops at Camp Victory, Iraq’s Al Faw Palace was depicted in this painting by English artist Xavier Pick. At the end of his visit, Mullen presented each of the military personnel there one of his personal coins and autographed Pick’s watercolor.
Recently, Admiral Michael G. “Mike” Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, visited our soldiers fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. One soldier asked him whether, because of the debt-ceiling-limit problem, the soldiers engaged in risking their lives fighting the war would get their pay checks on time? Adm. Mullen said that he didn’t know and that the House and Senate were trying to work out a compromise.
What he should have said was, “Yes, I’ve told the President and the Secretary of Defense that you’ll get your checks on time if I have to rent out half the Pentagon for office space, sell an aircraft carrier, or put a freeze on every dime of procurement money spent! And if that doesn’t work all the Chiefs of the Services, along with me, will have our resignations on the Secretary’s desk before sun down.”
That’s not compromise, that’s leadership.
Many years ago I was the Chief of Staff of V Corps stationed in Frankfurt, West Germany. In addition to my many military duties I was Lord Mayor of all the military communities in the corps, which included being superintendent of all the American Elementary, Intermediate, Junior and Senior High Schools.
A group of educators traveled from the United States to evaluate the quality of education of the various American schools scattered throughout Europe. One day I learned that from the dozens of schools evaluated the educators singled out Frankfurt Junior High School for an award of excellence. It was the only school in the system to qualify for the award. So I made an appointment to visit with the principal and congratulate him.
“General,” he began waving me to a seat in his cramped office. “It is good of you to stop by. To what do I owe this honor?”
“The honor is mine,” I said. “I came to congratulate you and your school for winning such a prestigious academic award. Be certain we will arrange for an appropriate ceremony to publicly acknowledge it.”
We talked of many things and, finally, I leaned forward and asked a question I had wanted to ask for a long time. “Tell me, what makes for an excellent school like yours?”
He leaned back in his chair and said more to the open window than to me, “You’ll not find a good school with a bad principal, nor a bad school with a good principal.”
Of course, he was right. It is leadership that makes the difference, and his comment applies to most organizations and institutions. Leadership is everything, from the White House to Congress to the state houses to the news media and to the battlefields of the Middle East. There are no good organizations with bad leaders, and no bad organizations with good leaders.
The Congress could use a good dose of leadership right now. Recently the Senate left town for a six week recess without passing a short term bill to keep the FAA funded and running. One party, as they headed for vacation, blamed the other party for this debacle saying they refused to compromise on cutting funding for rural airports.
Whatever, this leadership failure resulted in 4,000 FAA employees being immediately furloughed and over 70,000 construction workers losing their jobs, when many badly needed construction projects were stopped and put on hold. If there was a real leader in the Senate, he or she would have stood to their feet and declared that, “Congress will remain in session until this bill is passed!” If the Senate balked at that, the President of the United States could be induced to do some serious arm twisting.
At the same time that this pathetic abdication of Senate leadership was taking place, real leadership was being demonstrated by a handful of FAA employees who declared that for safety reasons they would continue to come to work and perform safety inspections, without pay, until the problem was sorted out and the necessary legislation passed.
Those responsible for providing leadership from the White House to Capitol Hill, to the Department of Transportation and the FAA clearly abdicated their positions of leadership. Those in the FAA, not in leadership voluntarily assumed the mantle of leadership and responsibility and kept things going until their bosses came to their senses.
The junior high school principal back in Frankfurt got it right; there are no good Congresses with bad congressmen, and no bad Congresses with good Congressmen. Honest compromise – which is a necessary part of democratic government — is always important and desirable, but without proper leadership it is fraught with failure and disappointment.