Everyone Needs Core Values, Mentors
Gen. Hal M. Hornburg, commander, Air Education and Training Command
Address to Virginia Military Institute Corps of Cadets, Lexington, Va., Nov. 16, 2000
It's always a pleasure and an honor to speak to an audience of cadets. The pleasure comes in the memories it brings back of my own days with the cadet corps of Texas A&M, while the honor comes in addressing a group of individuals who've made a commitment to a higher calling than self. While you've committed yourselves to enrichment through a college education, you've done so in an environment that asks you to reach beyond your own goals and desires and work as a team for the betterment of the corps. That distinction is an element of what I want to talk with you about today. (VMI Superintendent Virginia Militia Maj.) Gen. Josiah Bunting asked me to talk to you about ethics. With that in mind, I'm going to share some thoughts with you on two ideas: core values and mentorship.
While many intuitively understand the meaning of core values, a solid definition is vital to this discussion. By their very definitions, "core" means that it's at the center, while "values" is defined as our beliefs. Core values then translate into beliefs that are at the center of who we are and define us both as individuals and professionals. They are the critical, intangible essentials that bring continuity and meaning to life. The anchors that support all we do and define who we are. And while core values define us as individuals, they also define our nation's institutions. Both people and institutions have values and they need to be shared values. When individual and institutional values conflict, you can expect a crippling impact to one or both.
In these modern times, we live in an era of relative values, where right is determined by what advances my interests. That is completely in contrast to the core values we aspire to. Core values are your bedrock, despite whether it's good times or turbulent times, core values are your guidepost, your touchstone, the means by which you always know what to do because you are guided by that unchangeable, unwaverable set of core values. That's why they're important. To help you navigate turbulent times whether on an individual or institutional level.
But values don't just appear, and we don't assimilate them overnight. They develop and evolve over the course of a lifetime. You may see them on the wall of a building or read them in the pages of a book, but it takes time for them to move from the wall or the page to your heart. And that happens in large part through mentoring.
Whatever institution your life's work is going to occur with, whether it's the Air Force, Army, Navy, Marine Corps, government or private enterprise, you need to be aware that institutions, all institutions, have values. And sometimes there're two sets of values. There are the values printed on the brochure and then there are the de facto set of values; those values that are distilled from the behavior of the organization. Ideally the values on the wall, the lofty ones they aspire to, are reflected in the day-to-day actions of the organization and its leaders.
When you think of your life's work, be sure that your personal values are compatible with the organization's values and that the organization's published values match their actual values. It's then that you have a healthy relationship, one in which you can grow and prosper over a lifetime or over a career.
Consider the institutional core values of VMI and our military services. VMI's institutional values are more than 161 years old. That longevity is a proud testament to the honor code that states, "a cadet does not lie, cheat or steal, nor tolerate those who do." There is no doubt that VMI's written and de facto values mirror one another and each of you agreed to live by these high standards when you accepted admission to this school. It's a commitment you, and VMI, ought to be proud of.
Similarly, service members are expected to honor their respective service's values when they take their enlistment or commissioning oaths. American servicemembers show a patriotism that is the powerful expression of what is best in our nation's character: A commitment to principle, a willingness to sacrifice and the courage that comes from devotion to higher goals. The Army's seven values are loyalty, duty, respect, selfless-service, honor, integrity and personal courage. The Navy and Marine Corps stand on the principles of honor, courage and commitment.
With regard to core values, I speak today from an airman's perspective. As airmen, we live by three simple values: integrity first, service before self and excellence in all we do. And while you can see that the Air Force doesn't have a patent on this list, I'm extremely proud of these values.
From an airman's perspective, integrity first means you have a touchstone - it's about honesty and trustworthiness. It's the inner voice, the source of self-control, the basis for the trust that is imperative in today's military. It means that you always try to do what's right, and you always try to do what's right regardless of whether anyone's watching or whether the issue at hand is pleasant or painful. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. put it this way, "The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands in times of challenge and controversy."
I don't know too many people who have bad values or too many people who have bad goals, but on occasion people make poor choices. Their actions aren't in alignment with their values or goals. Integrity first comes in the moment of choice when you pause and reflect upon your values and goals and you elect to make the right decision.
To me, service before self is the privilege of never having to look at my wife and say, "I'm going to work today." It's a lot more than just going to work. It's about carrying an attitude of "how can I contribute," rather than "what's in it for me?" Service before self builds teamwork and inspires others. Eventually, most of you will realize that the creature comforts of life are not enough to bring fulfillment. At some point, you need to feel your lives have touched and influenced, for the better, a world larger than the one that ends in your backyard. Every day military people see the value of service to a larger cause. They see the connections between our freedom and our obligations.
Service before self does not deny that you have self-interests. There's nothing wrong with having personal goals and a desire to be the best. We all have personal goals and ambitions, and it's important to take steps to realize those goals and ambitions. That's what adds richness, depth and diversity to your own life. The key to service before self is the ability to adapt personal goals into selfless goals. It means you don't pursue selfish interests and you don't have a personal agenda contrary to the organization. It's an attitude that mandates the organization wins all ties. Those of you who accomplish great things in service to your country will be those who learn the meaning of service before self.
Inherent in service before self is a desire for excellence. Now excellence in all we do doesn't mean that we're excellent all the time. It just means that we try, and we try our best. Budget cuts, deadlines and expediency too often attempt to out-shout and out-run excellence. Conformity is too easy. Mediocrity is too safe. Too many settle for less than their best and convince themselves quality and integrity are negotiable. But I believe excellence is a commitment to constant improvement. There are only two directions to move in life, either forward or backward; it's impossible to stand still - standing still means you're actually falling behind. To constantly see problems and challenges as opportunities involves a passion for excellence. In the words of Vince Lombardi: "Unless you put everything you have into your pursuits - your mind, your body, your total dedication - what is life worth? The quality of life is in direct proportion to your commitment to excellence." Live your life with a passion for excellence and you can make a difference.
The day you walk into an organization you can read in a nice brochure what their core values are. But it will take time to assimilate those values, to truly have them resonate within your own soul. That process is guided along through mentoring.
A mentor is an individual who advises and challenges you to do your best on both a personal and professional level. Everyone needs a mentor. As a child, your parents, grandparents or someone close filled that role. When you entered VMI, your upperclassmen, professors and perhaps an alumni or two filled that role. When you graduate and move into your life's work, someone within the organization will likely fill that role. Mentors come in all shapes and sizes, and they come from all walks of life. The quality of mentors differs, so it's important to choose your mentors wisely. I've had many mentors throughout my own lifetime and even as a four-star general I have mentors I call upon.
Leadership is where mentoring starts - they go hand-in-hand. The first duty of a leader is to grow more leaders and one way to do that is through mentoring. Mentoring is an act of giving. It's about service before self. It's about reaching out to others, sharing lessons learned, offering guidance and providing an ear to listen.
In terms of giving, strong leaders surround themselves with brilliant, capable people. Insecure leaders, who are not leaders at all, but very insecure leaders will try to surround themselves with stupid people or "yes-men" so they can appear brilliant. But frankly, while they may be the top dog, they're going to be the top dog standing on a pretty smelly heap.
The strong leader, the one surrounded by smart people, believes you not only hire smart people, but also you build smart people and then unleash their capabilities. You do this because you believe in your heart and know that when the team succeeds, there's enough credit to go around for everybody. That's a sense of selflessness.
That sense of selflessness when acting as a mentor stems from knowing that you can't look for the big payback, the "what's in it for me." Because the highest compliment that can ever be paid to you as a mentor will never occur in your presence. That moment occurs when the next generation's leader, the one you worked with, faces his or her own crisis and seeks wisdom in the silent chambers of the soul and asks, "how would my mentor have handled this?"
Finding good mentors is only half the equation. Learning to mentor others is the other half. It's an inherent part of leadership to learn how to mentor, and VMI offers an outstanding opportunity to hone your mentoring skills through the Dike system.
As you rise from the ranks of the lower class to the upper class, you assume mentoring responsibilities. If you haven't taken the time to think about it before, consider now the awesome responsibility you hold in developing younger class members, individuals who will one day fill your shoes and all the responsibilities that go with them. And as you seek out opportunities to mentor, I encourage you to go beyond your own clan and mentor individuals who don't look like you. Minorities need white role models, white kids need minority role models, women need male role models and vice versa. You get the idea.
Mentoring isn't about a "good old boy" network. It's about helping people grow and think for themselves. It's an opportunity to connect with the past and contribute to the future. It's about seeking out all of tomorrow's bright, young leaders and helping them navigate the path that lies ahead.
The core value and mentoring messages are important ones to me in today's environment of situational ethics. Core values and ethical leadership make the military what it is. They are the tools that instill confidence, earn lasting respect and create willing followers. They guarantee the trust of subordinates in the orders of their leaders. They create the special esprit de corps and bonding we consider essential to the teamwork required for combat. They ensure the confidence of the American people in the rightness of our actions. And they are why the citizens of this great nation have rated the military as the most respected institution in the United States for the last decade. Without trust and confidence there cannot be an effective military for America.
I believe an individual's personal worth is measured by his or her adherence to core values. These are formative years for all of you whether you're a freshman or a senior. It's a time to challenge, refine and assimilate the core values you've been exposed to up until now. The values shared by your parents, spiritual advisors, professors, friends and peers. These are years in which you'll decide what values to carry with you throughout your lifetime - the values that will translate from the page to your heart. I caution you to choose wisely.
During this time, find wise mentors to learn and grow from, while at the same time developing your own mentoring abilities. You have an opportunity to influence the world through mentoring - the individual sitting next to you could be the next chief of staff of the Air Force.
You are a unique group of Americans; individuals who've risen to the call of service before self. I applaud you for your efforts to enhance yourselves through education, but I also applaud you for doing so in an institution dedicated toward building citizen-soldiers for this great country of ours. Whether you elect to receive a commission upon graduation or not, the knowledge you gain here with regard to our nation's military will serve our country well as you enter the work force. Our nation needs individuals in tune with her military and the values inherent in our services. For those of you joining the Air Force, I'm a bit biased, but I think you've made a great choice, and I look forward to your joining our team. I appreciate the opportunity to speak with you today and wish you well. Thank you.