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Rising to the Occasion: Leadership in America

U.S. Capitol building

I'm honored to be here at the BYU Marriott School of Business. This is a great school named after a great family. Dick Marriott is a good friend, and he is truly an inspiration.

He and his family and the great story of that family are guides to how you can achieve success in life. This school was built to engage men and women of faith, character, and professional ability to become outstanding leaders, to advance their knowledge, and to provide service and leadership for their family, for their community, and for their nation.

We come together at a critical time for our nation, a critical time for the world, and a critical time for all of you as leaders and future leaders of the United States of America. Our democracy, our institutions of government, and even each of us are being tested by unprecedented challenges of our time; by the political challenges we are seeing here at home; by issues that test our very faith in our country, ourselves, and each other; and by significant national security challenges.

I often tell people this may not be a bad time to pull out and read or reread The Guns of August by Barbara W. Tuchman. This book is about events that led to World War I, including many things that seem similar in today’s world: terrorism, nationalism, territorial disputes, fragile alliances, and the failure of world leadership to understand these flash points that resulted in a world war. This is a good time to remember the lessons of history and, more importantly, understand the responsibility of leadership at all levels to protect our country, our security, and our freedoms.

Before I share some additional thoughts on these issues, let me say how honored I am to be in Provo, Utah. This is a beautiful community with a rich history, from the Ute Indians to Spanish Franciscan priests and, of course, the Mormon pioneers. In many ways, the story of Utah reflects the story of how the West was built. As a westerner, I relate to that because I was born and raised in a community that reflects a lot of that same history.

My American Beginning

Let me tell you a little bit about my family. My parents are both from Italy; my father is the thirteenth child in his family. Several of his older brothers left Italy and headed to America ahead of the rest of the family. His older brother Bruno settled in Sheridan, Wyoming, and another brother, Tony, settled in California.

When my parents arrived in America, they followed the Italian tradition and visited Bruno, the elder brother, first. After spending one winter in Sheridan, my mother suggested it was time to visit Tony in California, which they did. My dad settled in Monterey, opening a restaurant in downtown Monterey during the World War II years.

Monterey County was home to Fort Ord, a major military training and staging post. So Monterey was one of the last stops before the soldiers went to war. I can remember seeing a lot of uniforms in Monterey as a kid. In fact, my parents often invited soldiers, particularly if they were Italian, to join our family for the holidays.

As a young boy, I remember looking at those young men and realizing that, in a few weeks, they would be in the middle of war. I thought of that often, particularly when I became secretary of defense and felt the responsibility of deploying young men and women into harm’s way.

Values of Our Forefathers

I also remembered the hard work that my parents were engaged in. My father was the chef in his restaurant, and my mother handled the cash register. My brother and I worked in the restaurant as well. My earliest recollections are of standing on a chair in the back room and washing glasses. Child labor was a requirement in my family.

My dad sold the restaurant after the war and bought land in Carmel Valley. He planted a walnut orchard, and again my brother and I worked, moving irrigation pipes, hoeing, and pruning. On a farm, you work from early morning to evening. When the trees were ready, my dad would hook and shake each of the branches with a pole, and my brother and I would wait underneath to collect the walnuts. (When I got elected to Congress, my father observed that I had been well trained to go to Washington because I had been dodging nuts all my life.)

I think that the fundamental mission of this school—and the fundamental mission of public service—is to ensure that we give our children a better life. I used to ask my father, “Why did you come all of that distance, leaving family, leaving everything you knew, traveling thousands of miles? Why did you do that?” My father would reply, “Because your mother and I believed that we could give our children a better life in this country.” That is what we all want for our children and for their children.

My parents also taught me that dreams are just dreams unless you are willing to work hard, sacrifice, never give up, and keep fighting until your dreams come true.

When I was attending Santa Clara University, a Jesuit said to me, “Leon, God has given you life, but it is up to you to make a life.” He also told a story that I often repeat because it makes such a wonderful point. A rabbi and a priest wanted to get to know each other. They thought that if they went to events and talked, they could learn more about each other’s faith. So one evening they attended a boxing match together. Just before the bell rang, one of the boxers made the sign of the cross. The rabbi nudged the priest and asked, “What does that mean?” The priest said, “It doesn’t mean a thing if he can’t fight.”

We bless ourselves with the hope that everything is going to be fine in this country, but frankly, it doesn’t mean a thing unless we are willing to fight to make this the best democracy on the face of the earth. Those are the values that I was raised with. And those are the values that were part of our pioneers, our forefathers, who came to this country. Those are the values that made this the greatest country on earth. Whether we embrace those values now will determine a great deal on whether we remain the greatest country on earth.

Risk of Leadership

I often tell the students at the Panetta Institute that in our democracy we govern either by leadership or by crisis. If our leaders are willing to take the risks associated with leadership, then we can avoid and certainly contain crisis. But if our leaders are not willing to take those risks, we will govern by crisis.

Today we largely govern by crisis. Governing by crisis is easy. You don’t have to make any tough decisions. You don’t have to cut any benefits, don’t have to raise any taxes, don’t have to make any decisions that might offend people. You wait for crisis. You wait for crisis to get so bad that you are forced to respond, and then you blame the crisis. You can do that.

The problem is you lose the trust that the American people have in our system of government. If there is any one story about the 2016 election, it’s the story about a lot of angry and frustrated voters, people who felt that the dysfunction in Washington was not dealing with their concerns and was not coming together to resolve the issues that face this country. Consequently, they were willing to take a huge risk and vote in somebody who was unpredictable and had little experience in governing, but somebody who they thought could in some way shake up Washington.

At this moment, it is difficult to know what direction this country will take, but we do know that we are being tested—all of us. The institutions of our democracy are being tested. Thank God for the genius of our forefathers, who knew that if this democracy was going to sustain itself, we had to build institutions into that democracy that would be resilient in moments of crisis.

They knew that self-government was important, but they also knew that power should not be centralized in any one branch of government. So they built a remarkable system of three separate but equal branches of government, each a check and balance on the other. This is a great formula to limit power, and it also happens to be a formula that produces gridlock. But I think the key for our forefathers was that the ultimate power would rest with the people. Through the power to vote, we could influence what happens in our democracy; we elect our leaders, and those leaders are ultimately responsible to us.

Leon Panetta

Across the Aisle

I have been involved in public life for fifty years. I have seen Washington at its best, and I have seen Washington at its worst. The good news is I have seen Washington work. I’ve seen Republicans and Democrats come together and work together. When I got out of the army, I went back to Washington as a legislative assistant to a Republican senator from California who was the minority whip. I watched people with political differences who knew that when there were big issues, they had to work together to solve those issues—and they did. They knew that they were elected not just to survive in office but to do something.

As a congressman, I learned how to reach across the aisle. During the Reagan administration, there was a Republican president and a Democratic Congress, but we passed budgets. We passed tax reform. We passed immigration reform. We passed social security reform. We supported policy decisions and defense initiatives. Was it tough? You bet. Governing is tough, but people were willing to govern because they believed not only that it was good for the country but also that it was good politics.

I have never seen Washington as partisan, divided, and dysfunctional as it is today. A lot of things contribute to it, but one of the problems is leading by crisis. When our leaders have to deal with a crisis, they just kick the can down the road and hope that at some point somebody else will deal with it. As a result, major issues facing this country are not being dealt with, including the following:

  • A $20 trillion national debt, which is projected to go from 77 percent of GDP to over 100 percent of GDP
  • Development of an effective and comprehensive healthcare delivery system
  • Funding infrastructure
  • Immigration
  • The war on terrorism—not just across the Middle East but across the world
  • Our relationships with other countries, including Iran, North Korea, Russia, and China
  • Cybersecurity, which involves denial of service, hacking, harassment, stealing intellectual property, and developing the technology to paralyze—even destroy—a country

All of this is happening at a time when there are questions about the United States providing world leadership. Are we a reliable partner? Is our word worth anything? Can we govern?

Sound of the Trumpet

As discouraging as things may seem, in the end I believe in American leadership. We’ve faced crises throughout our history: world wars, the Civil War, depressions, recessions, natural disasters, and more. Our leadership has always risen to the occasion. That leadership isn’t always in Washington. Sometimes that leadership comes from states and communities across this country. That leadership rests in the resilience and common sense and spirit of the American people—and I’ve seen it.

As secretary of defense, I saw those values in the men and women in uniform who serve this country. I’ve been on battlefields in Iraq and Afghanistan and seen it in the eyes of the young people who are willing to put their lives on the line to fight and die for this country. I’ve often thought that our elected leaders could maybe use a little bit of that courage to govern this country.

Ultimately the responsibility to lead rests with us. In Afghanistan, I saw a plaque marking a location where a suicide bombing killed seven CIA officers. On the plaque was a scripture from Isaiah 6:8 that read, “I heard the voice of the Lord, saying, Whom shall I send, and who will go for us? Then said I, Here I am; send me.”

“Send me” is the sound of the trumpet. It calls all of us in this country to duty. It calls all of us to the fight to provide the leadership necessary to make sure that we have a better life for our children. It calls us to make sure that we have a government of, by, and for all people. And very frankly, it doesn’t mean a thing unless we’re willing to fight for it.

God bless you, and God bless our country.


Address by Leon Panetta
Photography by BYU Photo

About the Speaker
Leon Panetta has spent fifty years in public service, including stints as US secretary of defense, director of the CIA, White House chief of staff, director of the Office of Management and Budget, and a US representative from California. BYU Marriott honored him with the 2017 International Executive of the Year Award. This text is adapted from a 15 September 2017 speech given on campus.

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