By General Martin E. Dempsey

I carry around an image in my mind. It’s a picture of a soldier, a squad leader. He’s on the radio, calling for support. I don’t know if he is calling for air support or medical evacuation. It doesn’t matter because he knows he and his squad will get it.

He’s vulnerable while calling, but you can see that his battle buddy has his back. You can also see a ring on his finger. He has a family back home.

They have confidence in him because of the training he and his team received. They have confidence—as members of our Military Family—that we will keep faith with them no matter what happens to their loved one.

They trust us.

After nearly a year of being the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff—the principal military advisor to the Secretary of Defense and the President—I find that trust is just as relevant to me as it is to this soldier. Why? Because trust is at the center of who we are and what we do as members of the Profession of Arms.

And, it is at the core of what it means to be a leader—whether a squad leader or Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

In fact, the similarities between leading at these two levels are greater than most would think. As I visit our young men and women in service around the globe, I am consistently reminded of the leadership lessons I learned as a young officer—they are still relevant today.

This consistency across the force is one of the main reasons my trust in our service members runs so deep. I want to share with you a few of the fundamentals that guide my personal approach to leadership—30 years ago as a troop commander and today as Chairman.

Photo credit DOD photo by D. Myles Cullen

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, left, Jerry Colangelo, USA Basketball Men’s National Team managing director, center, and Coach Mike Krzyzewski hold a leadership panel discussion with the Airmen of Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada, on Aug. 13, 2015.

Building Relationships

I recognized years ago that relationships are a key part of leadership.

From the family unit all the way up to the international level, healthy relationships depend on trust. Sowing the seeds of trust, early and often, can bear a harvest that is well worth the labor. You can’t just phone these things in—you have to dig in and get your hands dirty. You have to meet face to face. You have to nurture relationships for them to grow and to be effective and meaningful.

My relationships today span across government and society, both at home and abroad. I rely on the counsel and expertise of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Strong relationships enable me to work with leaders throughout the executive and legislative branches on our most challenging national security issues.

Furthermore, an important component of U.S. relations with other countries centers on my dialogue with foreign military leaders. And, my relationship with the American people and key civic organizations helps to take care of our Military Family.

Understanding Context

My perspectives have broadened naturally and deliberately over time.

In my early years, understanding my unit and its mission was the most important thing. As Chairman, my jurisdiction is global, and my focus must be our security today and tomorrow. By tomorrow, I mean 2020 and beyond.

I strive to understand and anticipate changes in the global security landscape as well as the dynamics within our Joint Force. This is a daunting task, but to succeed in my position, I have to understand the world in which we live and the context in which the military is used.

As I scan the security horizon, I see a paradox. On one hand, geopolitical trends are ushering in greater levels of peace and stability worldwide. And the U.S. retains the most capable military in the world. Be assured, that will not change.

On the other hand, lethal technologies are available to a wider array of would-be adversaries. Much of the destructive capability that rested in the hands of only major powers 10 years ago is more commonplace today. In this respect, the security environment has become more competitive.

As I reflect on our institution, I see three significant transitions that will have lasting impact on our troops, their families and our nation.

First, we are transitioning away from a decade dominated by war. We have gone from more than

200,000 to fewer than 90,000 troops deployed in combat in the past two years alone. As we continue this trend, we will be working to restore versatility at an affordable cost.

This brings me to the second major transition. Our budget is contracting as we contribute to the economic recovery of our country. This means we will have to figure out how to operate with fewer resources than before. We’ll need to learn some new spending habits to make sure we are the best possible stewards of our nation’s treasure. We can and will do this, as we always have, for the nation and for our Military Family.

The Military Family is at the center of a third major transition. Thousands will take off their nation’s uniform and put on a business suit. Crossing this bridge is made easier by the groundswell of support we receive from our civic and community organizations, businesses and industry.

In fact, this transition offers great potential for American society and our economy. Our troops and their families are talented, hard-working and—most of all—trustworthy.

These transitions, coupled with emerging security challenges, form our context. They shape how we defend our nation, and they drive the demands we put on our men and women in uniform. This context frames many of my recommendations to the President and Secretary of Defense. And it surely informs my priorities.

Photo credit DOD photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Daniel Hinton

The 18th Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin E. Dempsey leaves Resolute Support headquarters after receiving a mission update from command leadership in Kabul, Afghanistan, July 19, 2015.

Setting Priorities

My first assignment as a second lieutenant was to an armored cavalry squadron about an hour north of

Nuremberg, Germany. We spent most of the time on the Czech border, where the Warsaw Pact was facing off against NATO. I was a brand new officer without combat experience coming into a military that had just finished a war. The soldiers lacked discipline and motivation. Grousing is a military tradition—an art really—but this was too much. The only way to cure their contagion was to give them a sense of purpose—to set priorities that helped them take responsibility for their own success.

As Chairman, I serve as the senior military officer of a force that is filled with pride and confidence.

But, I still set priorities to make sure we can successfully manage the big transitions and—most important—keep delivering options for our nation.

One of my four priorities is to stay focused on achieving our national objectives in Afghanistan.

Not a moment goes by that I don’t think about our men and women in harm’s way. We must never overlook the fact that we have America’s sons and daughters still fighting in Afghanistan.

Remember that image of the squad leader. He’s out there right now, on that radio, counting on us to deliver.

Even as we stay focused on their success, we must prepare to be successful in the future. Therefore, I am investing considerable energy is building the Joint Force we will need in 2020. We need to be selective in the joint capabilities we reconstitute after a decade of war—and which new capabilities to develop. I am determined to build a responsive Joint Force that preserves options for our nation.

While we look to the future force, we must also consider how the last decade of war has changed us. I believe we have an opportunity—and an obligation—to reflect on what it means to be a member of America’s armed forces. We have to ask first-order questions about who we were, are and can be. So, another priority is to renew our commitment to the Profession of Arms. This ensures we fulfill our role as guardians of our profession—our reputation, our self-respect and our honor.

Finally, I stand in awe of our men and women in uniform, the family members who stand with them, veterans of every generation, wounded warriors and the loved ones of our fallen. They have fought harder and sacrificed more than many will ever know. Honoring our commitments to them is how we preserve the strength of our All-Volunteer Force. It is a fundamental part of who we are. This is why I am determined to keep faith with our Military Family.

What it Boils Down to

We have some great equipment in our Joint Force, but our people are our greatest asset. Leadership and trust are what brings them together.

Military service remains our nation’s preeminent leadership experience. Our service members start learning these fundamentals on their first day. Furthermore, over the past decade they have earned much more than our admiration—they have earned our trust.

Early this year, I had the chance to meet Master Sergeant Roger Sparks, a pararescueman in the Alaska Air National Guard. Sparks rescued 12 soldiers off the side of a mountain in the Hindu Kush area of Afghanistan.

Under tremendous fire, he lowered himself by cable from a helicopter 12 times. Twice, the cable was hit by gunfire. Eight soldiers survived and four died in his arms.

“What were you thinking of when you lowered yourself time after time after time?” I asked Sparks.

“Truthfully,” he said, “I didn’t have time to think about it. I just knew they really needed me.”

That sort of trust, sacrifice and leadership is who we are in the military family. We will go through changes—in strategy, resourcing and structure—but as long as we keep the attitude Sparks demonstrated, as long as we focus on the fundamentals and as long as we trust our service members, I am absolutely convinced we’ll be there when the nation needs us.

–General Martin E. Dempsey is the 18th Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, an assignment that follows his tenure as the 37th Army Chief of Staff.