General Martin Dempsey: “Character Becomes the Safety Net for a Good Decision”

General Dempsey discusses why he believes the turmoil of 2020 will lead to positive change

July 28, 2020

In his conversation with Dean Bill Boulding as part of Fuqua’s Distinguished Speaker Series, General Martin Dempsey discussed the enormity of the moment in finally being able to dismantle systemic racism.

“This has to be one of those moments. I don’t want my grandchildren to have exactly the same conversation we are having now, and that I had as a 16-year-old in 1968. They (my grandchildren’s generation) are going to have a conversation because there will be other issues. But I don’t want it to be the same conversation.”

The hour-long discussion spanned a wide variety of topics. General Dempsey explained why he doesn’t consider kneeling during the national anthem as an affront to those who have served, as well as why the William Butler Yeats’ quote, “Talent perceives differences; genius unity,” is such an important mantra now more than ever.

General Dempsey shared insights from his time leading the United States military as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff from 2011-2015. President Barack Obama explained in Dempsey’s job interview how much he valued and expected open and honest dialogue from his top military advisor, even when they disagreed with each other. General Dempsey feels that type of honesty is essential to strong teams.

The full video can be viewed above. Shorter snippets from the talk are below including why General Dempsey feels it’s more important to ask the question “how do I become a leader like you?” Rather than “how do I get to be CEO of a company?”

The first question is more important in General Dempsey’s view because it leads to reflection that being a good person lends to being a good leader. He believes the instinct to focus on decency is the more honest approach to leadership.

Displaying character when facing tough decisions remained a theme throughout the talk. General Dempsey warned that as leaders progress into senior roles, the easy decisions are stripped away, and the level of ambiguity increases.

“When you have enough information to make the decision, and then you apply your character to it: ‘Who are you? What do you believe?’ in those moments, character becomes the safety net for a good decision.”

Disagreement is not disloyalty
Understanding all viewpoints
Talent perceives differences, genius unity
How do I get to be a leader like you?
Say it in the room
Character is the last defense of a good decision

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