Who will you be when no one is watching?
An inspirational address given to the S. C. Corps of Cadets on Recogniton Day, 2014
Part of the Oath Renewal on The Citadel Green (Charleston's Marion Square)
By Jason Simmons, Class of 2000
Young men and women of the class of 2017, I would like to congratulate you on completing your knob year. Having been through the system myself, I know this is a day you have dreamed about for a long time. While it marks an important transition in your cadet career, I hope it is an even more important transitioning point of your life: you are no longer seen as a follower, but a leader.
At the conclusion of today's Gauntlet, I witnessed an exchange that took place in my old barracks, 3rd battalion. Two exhausted and elated members of the class of 2017 were embracing one another shouting "It's over! We did it!" While I have been there, and I totally get it, I have the unfortunate duty to inform you that it's not over. In fact, it is just beginning. You probably set a goal at the beginning of the year to make it to Recognition Day. And while it was a goal, it was not THE goal. You did not come to The Citadel simply to finish Knob Year. Likewise, you did not come to The Citadel simply to learn how to follow- but to lead, to stand out, to be different.
And as difficult as knob year was, the next three years of your cadet career will be just as difficult if not more. It only makes sense- more is expected of a leader. You may wonder how things get more difficult than they were this year. Let me explain.
You just completed a year of your life where you have had very few choices to make, few forks in the road, and almost no gray area. You have been under constant supervision- in the barracks, in the class room, in the mess hall. Your every move and every action has been under scrutiny and surveillance. Your appearance, your dress. You've had someone tell you how your hair must be cut, how to walk, how to talk, when to study, when to sleep, how to clean your room, even how to chew your food.
You may not have noticed while you were walking in the gutter, but everybody had their eyes on you. Always happy to give you a little "advice."
But in three weeks or so, you will depart The Citadel for summer leave, and you will leave behind the rules, and the constant supervision, and the straight and narrow path that has been laid out for you and you will be back into the outside world. A world full of choices. With no one looking over your shoulder.
Who will you be when no one is watching?
This summer, when you are far away from the jurisdiction of the Honor Code, will you keep your word? This summer, when no one is telling you what to eat and when to exercise, will you stay in shape? When there are no white-gloved cadre watching, will you treat others with respect? Who will you be when no one is watching?
This summer, when your friend has had too much to drink and wants to drive home will you step up or will you watch him drive away? When you see a stranger that needs help, will you lend a hand or will you say "I'm too busy."
Who will you be when no one is watching?
In simple terms, the word "Integrity" means doing the right thing even when no one is watching. Integrity, in my opinion, is an absolutely essential component of leadership.
You see, simply following orders while everyone is watching is easy. Anyone could do it. But leading by example is difficult, only a select few choose to do it. It takes integrity.
Now, integrity doesn't come standard with the cost of room and board at The Citadel. It can't be bought. You don't receive it in the tube with your diploma when you walk across the stage at graduation. It can't be given. Your honor and integrity are the only gifts in life that only you can give yourself, and only you can take them away.
"Integrity" is one of those idealistic words we use at The Citadel along with "Honor," and "Duty" and many others. They are heavy, meaningful words but sometimes I wonder if we use them so much that we lose the true meaning behind them.
I tend to take a more "engineering" view of the word Integrity. It's the ability to withstand outside pressure and influences. Uncompromised. Intact. You might hear "integrity" used in this way during a natural disaster. We've all heard: "During the earthquake, the building maintained its integrity, it was built on a strong foundation. Or maybe, "The hurricane winds were strong, but the bridge retained its integrity. It had good bones."
Your ability to withstand pressure and influences, while remaining true to your beliefs will define not only who you are, but how others view you- and not just this summer, but for the rest of your life. The values you hold near and dear will serve you well after your days at The Citadel are complete- from the battlefield to the boardroom.
And just like those bridges and buildings I mentioned earlier that maintained their integrity, you too will have to withstand the storms that blow in and out of your life. And trust me, storms will come. Maybe it's that "can't miss" investment that tanks, and drains your family's savings in an instant. Or maybe it's the day a routine patrol turns into an ambush, and your unit is pinned down, under heavy enemy fire. Perhaps it's the disease that comes out of nowhere and takes a parent way too soon. Or Heaven forbid, the day when your girlfriend runs off with a VMI grad.
It's difficult times like these, when your friends and family, your troops, your coworkers- they will look to you for leadership. And I want you to know- you are capable of being that leader. You have it in you. How do I know?
Because you've been built on a firm foundation. You've got good bones. You have been making the tough choices while no one has been watching for a long time. It's how you got here. In case you haven't noticed, this isn't exactly the "normal" college experience. But you made the choice to take "the road less travelled." And it will make all of the difference.
If you don't believe me, listen to this:
In January 1982, Florida Air Flight 90 crashed into the icy waters of the Potomac River outside Washington, DC. 84 passengers were on board, only five survived. The wreckage of the plane coupled with the ice in the river prevented normal rescue efforts on the ground. As hope began to fade and hypothermia began to set in, a US Parks Service helicopter hovered overhead and dropped a short, makeshift line to the surviving passengers in the water. According to one of the five survivors, one passenger, a 46 year old bank examiner, continued to help others reach the rescue ropes being dropped by the helicopter, repeatedly passing the lines to others instead of using it to save himself. When the other five passengers were safely ashore, the helicopter made its final approach to save the man that had saved all of the others. He was no longer there. Hypothermia set in, and he slipped beneath the water. A hero died that day. The man that passed the rope was Arland D. Williams, and he was a Citadel graduate, class of 1957.
After the crash, ABC news interviewed his old high school girlfriend. When asked how he decided to attend The Citadel, she said that he knew he wanted to be different. His only concern going in was The Citadel's mandatory swim test. You see, Arland D. Williams, the man in the icy water that passed the lifeline to others rather than save himself was terrified of water.
What causes a man, thrust into a sudden crisis, to be the person amidst the chaos of a plane crash that others look to for leadership?
I would say Arland D. Williams had a lifelong habit of doing the right things when no one was watching. You see, no one had to tell Arland Williams what to do that day. He just did it.
Our world is in desperate need of principled leaders. We need people who can withstand the storms, face the adversity, and make the tough choices- not just for the TV cameras, or the photo opp, or for the promotion. Because it's the right thing to do.
But it's going to take a special kind of person.
Maybe that person is you.
So I must ask you again, who will you be when no one is watching?
Thank you. May God bless you, The Citadel, and the South Carolina Corps of Cadets.