2017 Remarks at ROTC Commissioning Ceremony

Tercentenary Theatre, Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass.

As delivered.

Gen. Hyten. Capt. Horten. Lt. Col. Ott. Commissionees.

Good morning, everyone. I offer my congratulations on behalf of the University to these six about-to-be commissioned officers. These men and women have not just done all that was required of them to earn their Harvard degrees tomorrow, but they have assumed significant additional responsibilities in service to our nation. 

You are receiving your commissions at a moment of extraordinary challenge for our society and the wider world. We face military and diplomatic tensions in Asia, raging conflicts in the Middle East, the threat of terrorism around the globe. Within our own body politic, the United States faces unsettling polarization and social division.

You are committing yourselves to be leaders at a moment when we have never needed leaders more. And you have chosen to lead in an institution — the American military — that gives you very special opportunities and responsibilities in face of the troubling issues we confront.

This is a time when trust in institutions is low and getting lower. A rigorous and widely respected public opinion survey taken last fall showed that trust in business, government, media, and even non-governmental organizations had plummeted. Trust in business leaders stood below 40 percent; in government leaders, below 30 percent. Yet amidst this widespread crisis in trust, one institution seems to have retained the confidence of the American people. Three-quarters of us trust our military.

In a world in which so many individuals and organizations are seen as acting primarily for themselves, in pursuit of wealth or fame or status, the ethos of the military, its foundational principle, is to serve. The selflessness involved in your commitment to protect and defend others — this is an element that is foundational — to commit and defend others no matter the personal cost.

There are important lessons in this, I believe, for all of us, military and non-military alike, because our free and open society and our democracy are dependent on citizens’ trust. Yet individuals and institutions are unlikely to be trusted if they seem to be only about themselves. To lead must necessarily mean to serve.

Wherever we find ourselves in society, whatever institutions we may join or represent, we should keep this firmly in mind: Only when there is trust can there be effective leadership. As Secretary Colin Powell has observed: “The essence of leadership is building bonds of trust [with]in your organization.”

In the course of your training you have, I know, already learned a great deal about the connections among service, trust, and leadership. And as officers you will be ready to use and expand these lessons in the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines, institutions that understand those principles so well. As officers, may you sustain the trust vested in you. But may you also provide others throughout American society with a model of the intertwined nature of leadership, service, and sacrifice. Your disciplined dedication to something bigger than yourself has inspired the admiration of many around you in the Harvard community. We are deeply grateful to you for that and for the way you as soldier-scholars and servant-leaders will inspire us in the years to come.

Thank you.