Moral Leadership Insights from Military Leaders: General David Goldfein

In a recent conversation on moral leadership, Dana H. Born sat down with retired General David Goldfein to discuss his journey, the importance of character in leadership, and the lessons he learned throughout his distinguished career. Here, we delve into the highlights of their engaging dialogue, emphasizing the key principles of moral and ethical leadership.

The Road Less Traveled: A Journey of Reflection

After retiring, General Goldfein and his wife, Dawn, embarked on a 45-day road trip from Washington, DC to Texas in a camper van. This journey offered them a unique perspective of America and allowed them to unwind and reconnect. Reflecting on his 37 years of service, General Goldfein emphasized the sacred duty of his role and the immense responsibility of leading the United States Air Force.

The Call to Service

His path to service was influenced by his family’s military background. General Goldfein’s father, an Air Force veteran, and his older brother, a graduate of the Air Force Academy, inspired him to join the Air Force. During his time at the academy, he faced significant challenges but also experienced profound growth. A pivotal moment in his journey was taking a year off, during which he traveled across America, reflecting on the values of service and the importance of defending democracy.

Leadership as a Gift

General Goldfein shared his perspective on leadership, emphasizing that it is a gift from those you serve. He believes that leaders must remain grounded and understand that they are not entitled to their positions. Respecting those you lead and acknowledging their role as your “boss” is crucial. This mindset helped him make respectful and impactful decisions throughout his career.

Decision-Making as a Moral Leader

He discussed the challenges inherent in making difficult choices as a leader. General Goldfein advised that the higher you rise in rank and responsibility, the harder the decisions become. Leaders should focus on taking the right path rather than the easy one. He stressed the importance of surrounding oneself with a diverse team to gain different perspectives and make well-rounded decisions.

The Importance of Diversity and Inclusion

General Goldfein highlighted the significance of diversity and inclusion in leadership. He recounted a story about a senior NCO pointing out the bias in “flesh-colored” band-aids, which were not inclusive of all skin tones. This experience underscored the need for leaders to recognize their blind spots and actively seek diverse perspectives. In the military, diverse teams are essential for addressing complex challenges and ensuring effective decision-making.

The Foundation of Character

Character is the cornerstone of effective leadership. Without character, competence alone is insufficient. Leaders must act with integrity, even when no one is watching. General Goldfein noted that there was a period in the military when competence was valued over character, leading to several tragic incidents. Balancing both character and competence is crucial for moral leadership.

Bridging Military and Civilian Leadership

He also shared insights on linking military and civilian leadership, particularly in managing risk. General Goldfein emphasized the importance of clear communication and consistency in messaging to help business leaders make informed decisions. His approach focused on joint warfighting excellence, ensuring that all decisions align with improving the Air Force’s combat capabilities and fostering collaboration with allies and partners.

The Virtue of Humility

Humility is a vital trait for moral leaders. General Goldfein believes that humility is a sign of strength, not weakness. He shared his experience of building a network of international air chiefs during the COVID-19 pandemic, learning from their approaches, and contributing to a global effort. This collaborative mindset, rooted in humility, allowed for mutual learning and effective problem-solving.

General David Goldfein’s insights on moral leadership highlight the importance of character, diversity, and humility. His experiences and reflections provide valuable lessons for leaders across all sectors. As we navigate the complexities of modern leadership, embracing these principles can guide us toward ethical and impactful decision-making.

We thank General Goldfein for sharing his wisdom and experiences, and we wish him all the best in the next chapter of his journey. Onward and upward!

Read the Transcript

Dana H. Born: Welcome to our how conversation on moral leadership. We are so thrilled to have with us today. Retired now General David Goldfein.
General David Goldfein: Thanks Great to be here. I’m doing great. I had no idea that retired life could be so much fun.

Dana H. Born: So on your journey, I heard that you and your wife Dawn, who you’ve been married to since you graduated from the Air Force Academy in 1983 your high school sweetheart decided to take a road trip in in in a camper van from DC to Texas. How did that go?

General David Goldfein: You know, we decided that, like many, if we can’t stay in hotels because of covid, we should just put one behind us. So we, we, we got the chance to just sort of re, re see America a little bit from a different perspective. And, and I got to tell you, it was, it was just so much fun. We we met people in the campgrounds. We got a chance to get out and see America a little bit. And, quite frankly, got a little we got a chance to unwind, you know. And nothing better than waking up whenever you feel like waking up and some of our best days were, quite frankly, just in the campground, just relaxing, reading, spending time with each other. We logged 45 days together with no interruption, and it was quite, quite an experience.

Dana H. Born: fantastic. Well after 37 years of service, and since you married right after graduation, I’m guessing 37 years of marriage as well. That’s that’s time that you have earned and deserve. I know you talk about your time of service as a sacred duty, and you had incredible responsibilities when you retired leading our United States Air Force with almost 700,000 of our team members, active duty reserve guard and our civilian members, huge responsibility. You’ve led at every level, retiring as a Joint Chief and also being shot down rescued and being responsible for missions that rescued others. I want to start with asking you a question that you love to ask airmen. And I know you said this when you went to the Air Force Academy, that you like to go up and ask airman. Tell me your story, what led you to service. And so I’d like you to share some of your story, what led you into service.

General David Goldfein: Yeah, I will. But Dana, I’m gonna, I’m gonna start off by just reminding everybody here that that you served as well. And not only were we classmates, but we were squadron mates, and you were the first in our class to make flag general officer, to serve as the dean there. And so thank you for your incredible career and service. So my story is somewhat not really that unique. My father was Air Force veteran, 33 years Vietnam veteran, fighter pilot, flew at fours. My older brother went to the Air Force Academy, class of 78 and graduated as the cadet Wing Commander there, and so it just sort of seemed to be the natural progression for the Goldfein boys to go into the Air Force and the Air Force Academy, I will tell you, I had two very unique experiences at the academy that we can talk about the first two years, which were quite a bit of a struggle, and the last two years that were quite a blessing.

Dana H. Born: Let’s talk a little bit about that, because you participated in a program called stop out, which was to take a year off between your first two years and your second two years. And at the how Institute for society, Doug Seidman, our CEO and founder, talks about, when you hit pause on a machine, it turns off, but when you hit pause on a human, it’s actually begins or starts. And you did that, you took a full year off, and I’d like for you to share with us a little bit about why and what you learned in that pause for your year off. Well,

General David Goldfein: you may remember Dana, I was, I was struggling a bit at the Academy academically. I think I was, I was hovering at a 1.9 to 2.0 GPA and I was, I was just not doing that well as a cadet, and I think the academy leadership, we sort of made a mutual decision that I could probably use a year to get my act together, quite frankly, so at the time, you may remember my passion in. Was music at the time, and my childhood heroes growing up were folks like Harry Chapin, James Taylor, you know, sort of that genre, and I got a job as a roadie for Harry Chapin. So there’s an opportunity to go out and really pursue that other passion, and while and my only way of getting to him in New England was to get on a 10 speed bicycle and ride from my girlfriend now wife’s house in San Antonio, ride a 10 speed bicycle across the country to join up. And that was the tragic summer of 1980 when he had his car accident and was killed. And so I found myself on the road in the middle of America with no no plan. So I continued to ride for the remainder of that year, just me and I found a little dog on the way and who traveled with me. And what we what we did, was discovered America, and I discovered America, and really had a chance to reflect and think about this business of serving and defending the many people I’ve met along the way, so many of them who took me in to their homes, who who opened and embraced this, you know, long haired kid with a beard, you know, on a bicycle with a with a puppy, you know, or a dog. And I came to the conclusion that America is worth defending. And so when I went, when I made that phone call from I remember it was in Bowling Green, Kentucky on a cold, rainy night, I called back and told them I was coming back, and since that day, I’ve never looked back. And it’s really helped me to define why we serve. It’s to protect. It’s to protect this great experiment called democracy, and the many people that I met, just incredible Americans I met along the way, who who took the time to take me in.

Dana H. Born: It’s a beautiful story, and we’re so glad that you did. And one of your quotes where you talk about leadership and service, you say leadership is a gift, though, from those that you serve. I wonder if you might not talk about that, what you what you mean by that? Of you know, leadership for those or from those that you serve.

General David Goldfein: You know we, we often, I think, as leaders grow into these positions of responsibility and we, we start going off the tarmac when we start believing that that we’re entitled to any particular things as leaders, or that that the folks around us that we’re privileged to serve are honoring the person over the person over the position at the position of chief for a higher level, you know, I had a personal security team, and I would travel to and from work and around town, and especially when I traveled, you know, I would have a security team a hard car, normally a chase vehicle, you know, cars in front, cars and back. And on occasion, you know, in order to make a meeting or whatever, you know, they have the authority to turn lights and sirens, and we can, you know, move our way through traffic. I never liked doing that, and especially when I was on the road and I had a train team that didn’t really know me, and they would try that. I would ask them quietly to turn off the siren, turn off the lights. I said, here’s what you have to understand. Everyone you’re shoving to the side is my boss. I actually work for them, and I owe it to them to be respectful. You know, as I, as I make my way to whatever this, this meeting that we’re going to is not so important to be disrespectful to those I’m privileged to serve, which are the American people that we’re shoving to decide here, you know, as we go forward, so it’s a it’s a privilege, and I think leaders have to understand that.

Dana H. Born: Let’s transition into talking about decision making as a moral leader, if we can, because you’ve had to make such incredibly difficult decisions. They probably get more difficult as you advance in position of authority and rank, and sometimes the options aren’t optimal, but you have to decide. How do you maybe you share an example of how have you made a really challenging decision and what you did to kind of keep hope and faith in the hearts and minds of airmen to support the mission?

General David Goldfein: Yeah thanks, Dana. You know what I would tell folks as well, especially young, young commanders. You know, the higher you’re going, the higher you go in rank and responsibility, the harder their decisions are, and they should be. And if you are as a senior leader or spending your time on easy decisions, you’re actually wasting your time, and you’re probably doing some. Else’s job, and they don’t really need your help. So everything that comes into the office of the chief staff, the Air Force, is hard. It’s murky. There are no defined you know, easy answers, usually the easy or good options are long gone. And so sometimes you’re faced in finding what’s the least bad they know of the options that have been presented to you, you know every move you make as a leader of cause is a equal and opposite reaction in the opposite direction, which means that some number of people are not going to like the direction you take, and so don’t take the happy road. Take the right road. If you know that some number of people are going to be unhappy, it actually frees you to make the right decision, because no matter how you the only way you can get it completely wrong is try to make everyone happy, which never works. So take, take the right road, not the happy Road, to be able to make good, sound decisions, you have to have a diverse team around you that does not look at the world the way you do, because we all have blinders on. I’ve never been the only woman in a room. I’ve never gone through what you’ve gone through. I’ve never had everything I’ve said said scrutinized to a completely different degree, like you have. I’ve not ever had people say things to me. They probably thought were funny, but were actually quite degrading, and I had to just suffer through it, which I’m sure you have had happen, you know, throughout your career, that’s not, that’s not been my experience. Every room I walk into has been full of me, you know. And so if I have a team that I’ve built around me that has my life, experiences my background, then I’m not going to see around the corners that I need to see and understand the issue from such a diverse perspective.

Dana H. Born: You told a story in one of your meetings about the flesh colored band aid, and I wonder if you might talk a little bit about diversity and inclusion, and maybe advice for some of our listeners of, how do you really bring together a diverse and inclusive team and recognize that we have these blinders or blind spots or biases that we bring in.

General David Goldfein: The story very quickly is I had a senior NCO chief mastery to walk into my office when I was a young squadron commander and said, Hey, sir, this ought to make you mad, because it makes your, lot of your airmen mad. They threw a box, this box on my desk, of band aids. And so I looked at it when, Hey, what are you talking about? I don’t get it. What does this I do with it? You know, flying operation. And he said, he says, well, read the box. I said, you know, Johnson and Johnson flesh called her bandits. Hey, Chief. What? Okay, what are you talking about? He’s, well, I’m gonna show you ripped a band aid. Oh, put up, you know, put a pink band aid on his black skin, and it showed him like a beacon. He looked at me, sort of winked. He said, That ought to make you mad, because it makes a lot of your airmen mad, and he walked out. All right, so I share that story because it’s a visual. I think that you can get in your head that I couldn’t see it. There’s no way I could. I could have sat there for weeks during the thing and knowing it’s blinder, right? What other color would flesh color band aids be? But pink, it’s what I put on every day, you know, or whenever I write, it’s what I’d use. It’s what, you know, again, the world sort of just is, you know, every time I walk in room, it’s all about, it’s just, you know, it’s not the same experience. So we have these blinders. So if you, if you start to, if you start the, the the dialog with Okay, I have blinders. I need someone to help me see what I cannot see. And diverse teams perform better and come to much better solutions, much more creative solutions than the more complex and hard the problem the more important a diverse team is. So you get the very highest levels of government when you’re talking about being a Joint Chief and you’re talking about being a chief of an organization and responsible for the national security of the nation, I can’t think of an area where diversity and diverse teams are more important to me, it’s, it’s an it’s a war fighting imperative in the military and perhaps in business, it’s also an imperative that we have to have diverse teams to be able to pre to create the solutions that we need some of our most complex challenges.

Dana H. Born: Of all the characteristics that you would say are important for leaders, specifically moral and ethical leaders. What’s one characteristic that you say is kind of the preeminent or most important characteristic?

General David Goldfein: You know, throughout my time, I would get the. Question like this, especially I love the ones from young airman. I mean, my probably the one of my funniest moments, great moment was I went down at Lackland Air Force Base basic training, and they picked a certain, you know, a selection of cadets or trainees, because we they hadn’t earned the title airmen yet, and and they chose them to sit with me and have lunch. And there’s this young woman who was sitting, some young lady is sitting across from me, basic, 19 years old, looked at me and she said she’s Hey. So I got a question, and she pointed this to the stars. You know, she goes. How do I get some of those? And I just chuckled. I said, Well, you know, being selected from all of your peers to have lunch with the chief staff the Air Force, not a bad start, I said, but most importantly for you to think about at every level is his character being the foundation of any successful leader in in the Air Force terms, you know what I would tell young commanders, especially and senior NCOs, I said, you know, unless you got an Oscar on your shelf somewhere for just great acting. The airmen in our Air Force are so wicked smart, they are going to see right through a say, do gap. They will see right through you. And so we live in a glass bubble in a fish bowl, and we ought to welcome that from the moment you open the door to your home and step out on the landing to the to the time you close that door, you know, 1214, whatever, many hours later you’re on and and the higher you go in leadership positions, the loneliness that comes with leader ship is not that there are not plenty of people around you. It’s that you are more and more responsible for the outcome of the decisions that you make. And when you’re having those quiet moments, when nobody else is around and you’re thinking through a decision, what you always go back to what we all always go back to is that core of our being, which is our character. How do we act when no one’s watching? How do we handle the little things, the small decisions? And so it’s not only the secret to success for that young, you know, basic who wants to become a general officer, but it’s the secret for all of us, that without character as the foundation, the rest doesn’t matter. You know, you, quite frankly, you can have success in many things. There was a period of time in our military where we got a little bit out of balance, I think, in the, probably in the middle years of the war against violent extremism, we started valuing competence over character, and we got a bit out of balance. And it had, we had a series of, you know, tragic actions. Abu Ghraib, you know, Sergeant bales, I mean, we had, we had a series of tragic tragedies that went right to the heart of who we are as a military representing, you know, this great experiment called democracy. And I think we worked. We all in leadership positions worked to right that ship a bit, to make sure that both character and competence are equally valued in leadership. So I’d say that that that character is the foundation,

Dana H. Born: and my sense is from your answer. It’s not only from at every level within the military, across all sectors and the private sector as well as the military. Clearly, I’m wondering if you might talk a little bit about that, linking the military and civilian lenses together, with regard to risk, as you pointed out, the risk and some of the work to be done and the impact of the potential outcomes based on what you do or do not do, having guided by character. How do you think about risk from a military lens for civilian but also maybe what we learn from civilians in the military

General David Goldfein: Yeah, thanks, Dana. You know, my first few months as Chief, I had sit downs, one on one with as many CEOs as I could talk to, and I said to them, I said, Look, I’ve never been a CEO. I don’t. Don’t know or have a background in the pressure that you face to present quarterly earnings and and deal with share your shareholders and stakeholders. I said, I do know that I’m a principal customer, and I’d like your advice on how to be a good customer. And one of the things that that many of them said, they said, Look, we’re going to make risk decisions and we’re going to make calculations, and we’re going to spend, we’re going to make investments based on what what we hear you say, and it’s really important that you be clear with us on what it is that you want, where you’re going and why, so we can make important risk decisions in our company to align. And then one of the CEOs said, you know, I’m making way too many static displays. Meaning, in fact, you know, investing corporate money based on what they’d hear the chief say right, and then have the service turn left when it was going right, and then corporate investment and risk decisions they were making turned out to be bad decisions. So so for me, what I tried to do was, from that series of discussions, I sat back and thought, all right, where, where can I take the service, and how do I maintain consistency with the message, so that my business teammates are making smart risk decisions, and we’ve settled on, or I settled on, three words that sort of hopefully defined The tenure joint warfighting excellence. Anything we did, any movement we made, would improve this Air Force’s ability to fight jointly with our joint teammates, allies and partners, and be more combat capable. And as long as we were making decisions linked linked to that fundamental strategy, then we would be consistent, and then I could help them with making, you know, clear risk decisions that would actually become profitable for them, which we want and would benefit the service in terms of making us more combat capable.

Dana H. Born: Sounds like a win, win exchange that happened there leading to greater character at a company organizational level and a relationship level. Humility just oozes from you, and I think as we talk about the virtue of humility, it’s actually service in action, which has been your life journey. Someone quoted you as advancing and enlarging the prospect of peace, and I know in our own conversation with each other that drives you and and developing moral leaders is also something that you’re incredibly passionate about.

General David Goldfein: Developing moral uh, leaders with humility is perhaps as important today as at any time in our history. You know, we are the 800 pound gorilla, right when? When I just to, you know, give you an example as she as, as the Air Component Commander in Central Command, I commanded the third largest air force in the world as a three star commander, let alone being the chief Staff of the Air Force. It would be so easy to walk in and just be the Bulldog in the room. But the problem with that approach is that we have as much to learn as we have to offer, and especially when it comes to the cultural understanding of the region, no one can substitute for those who have grown up there that that know And so So internationally, it’s so important to be humble when you approach problem solvers. When we went into covid, we built a network of over 120 air chiefs that we built, sort of a chat room approach, where we could share what we were learning and thinking about and and we learned so much from, you know, the Italians, who were sort of the first ones that were having to deal with covid, right? Great discussions with my Japanese Air Chief counterpart, you know, so throughout the world, we had this ongoing discussion about how to contribute as a US military and as Air Forces to this global pandemic. And that would never have happened if the first shot out of the bar would be Hey, let me tell you everything that we’re doing, and you know you need to get in line with us. You know, that’s you know, not only is it disrespectful, but it shuts off learning opportunities. And so I do believe that, both individually and collectively, it’s time for us to show a bit of humility. You know, I’m a guy you mentioned at the beginning who is alive today because of some young men, because women weren’t in Special Operations at the time. You know, some young men who came, risked everything, got shot at to rescue me from, you know, getting shot down. I owe these guys my life. It makes you a little bit humble, quite frankly. And and so I do believe that that is not a sense sign of weakness, to be humble and bring humility to the table. It’s actually a sign of strength.

Dana H. Born: Well, you certainly bring that strength to everything that you do, and you will always be the 21st Chief of Staff of the Air Force, because General Brown is the 22nd as I was the 19. But you’ll always also be a classmate, a wonderful husband, father, dad, Grandfather now, and always an aspiring because I know you’re always learning moral leader. And I just want to thank you for participating in this how conversation on moral leadership and contributing to our listeners with lots of examples of how you think about moral leadership, and it’s very inspiring and compelling. And we wish you all the very best in the next chapter of your journey. And we salute you, and we thank you deeply. Thank you, General. Dave Goldfein, Dave,

General David Goldfein: thanks Dana, and thanks to you two for your incredible leadership at our Air Force Academy and throughout your career and now at the Howe Institute, and for taking on this important topic. I’m honored to participate. Well,
Dana H. Born: it’s nice to be doing this work together. So thank you very much. And thank you to our listeners, onward and upward we get you.

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