Leadership lessons

With the Thames River as a glittering backdrop, the United States Coast Guard Academy Class of 2017 said goodbye Wednesday to cadet life and "look out, world, here we come" to the future. Congratulations to all of them.

The 195 graduates face challenges their Coast Guard forebears never imagined, as speaker after speaker reminded them. The swells and troughs of leadership and character were on the minds of all, including that of the commander in chief, President Donald J. Trump.

On the football field on graduation day, it's all about achievement and bright promise, but everyone there, including proud and anxious parents, knows it's also about drug interdiction, human trafficking prevention, and daring rescues. Each career will have its unique successes and disappointments, but the same principles apply to all leaders of men and women.

Briefly and eloquently, Secretary of Homeland Security John F. Kelly, a retired Marine Corps general, reminded the graduates that the oath they were about to swear, to protect and defend the Constitution of the United States of America, is unique in the world: a pledge made not to a sovereign or to a ruling party, but to a document that sets forth the founding principles of the republic.

The Commandant of the Coast Guard, Admiral Paul F. Zukunft, told them he could not get them on to their newly assigned vessels fast enough — but he still has to testify Thursday before the House Appropriations Committee on behalf of long-overdue funding to replenish the fleet. Distinguished Graduate Christopher Popiel thanked his classmates for their unity and intoned the class motto, "The storm yields courage." Academy Superintendent James E. Rendon called the class "leaders of character."

The president, who noted he was addressing the first military academy commencement of his tenure, told the graduates that now that they are leaders, they have to act, they have to act properly, and they have to learn how to act under great, great pressure.

They may find that things happen that they don't deserve and are not always warranted, he said. They must put their heads down and fight, fight, fight.

With that, the president brought up the elephant on the field. He did not specifically mention the controversies embroiling his presidency, including investigations into Russian involvement with his campaign staff, his firing of the FBI director, calls for a special prosecutor, or potentially damaging disclosure of classified information to the Russians. But he offered himself to the graduates as an example of unfair treatment of a leader — worse treatment by the media than any political leader before him.

All that was said to the young Americans with their Coast Guard careers ahead of them would be good advice for their commander in chief to take to heart.

  • Honor above all your oath to protect and defend the Constitution.
  • The commander in chief's mission encompasses the Coast Guard mission, which is often dangerous and deserves the best possible equipment.
  • In the words of Secretary Kelly: Take care of your people. They will do anything you ask them to, including dealing with the most dangerous men on the planet. Tell the truth ... even when it is uncomfortable.
  • Be a leader of character; Americans will trust you.
  • And although it is a hard lesson, "The storm yields courage."

President Trump also mentioned some of the accomplishments he is most proud of, including some that drew applause — improved care for veterans — and some met with politeness — loosening of "environmental chains." Except for the Coast Guard's Arctic mission, which the president said will be getting new icebreakers, not much was said about the environmental response that is part of the service's role.

The spirit of graduation day is less about what exactly a person will do and much more deeply about how one will do it. The 136th Coast Guard Academy commencement rang with the themes of unity, courage, leadership, character, trust, truthfulness and fidelity to one's oath. All leaders, whether they earn their rank or are elected to it, should take a lesson. 

The editorial board is composed of the publisher and four journalists of varied editing and reporting backgrounds. The board's discussions and information gained from its meetings with political, civic, and business leaders drive the institutional voice of The Day, as expressed in its editorials. The editorial department operates separately from the newsroom.

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