On this Independence Day, July 4, 2019, let’s recommit ourselves to serving others, to a higher purpose, which is what has made our country great. At President Kennedy’s Inaugural Address on January 20, 1961, he said these famous words, “And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country. My fellow citizens of the world: ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man.” He talked about accepting not shirking responsibility.
I often speak to groups, and when I do, I try to communicate the importance of figuring out and committing oneself to a purpose in one’s life. My first leadership belief is, “Living a life driven by purpose is more meaningful and rewarding than meandering through life without direction.” My life’s purpose is to improve lives. This operates on many levels. While an Airborne Ranger Infantry Officer in the U. S. Army, I worked to make the world safe for democracy and freedom. At The Procter & Gamble Company I worked to improve the lives of the 5 billion people on the planet who used at least one P&G brand each day. While Secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs, I tried to improve service and care for the nation’s 21 million Veterans. On a more micro level I work each day to help any individual with whom I come into contact. Today, I choose my activities based upon this purpose.
In June I had the opportunity over the same week to attend a President Obama Alumni Reunion sponsored by the President’s and First Lady’s Obama Foundation and to speak at the George W. Bush Presidential Center’s Stand-To Veteran Leadership Program. Both experiences were opportunities to recommit myself to my life’s purpose of helping others. Both rooms were filled with those with similar missions. The Obama Administration alumni were focused on service to others. At the Stand-To Veteran Leadership Program it was my honor to interact with and address young leaders of Veteran Service Organizations and more. In both cases we talked about purpose, service to others, and values; and how these concepts have been bedrock for our country and whose importance is non-partisan and immutable.
When I spoke to the Veteran leaders at the Bush Presidential Center I talked about the many mistakes I made as Secretary of the Department of Veteran Affairs. There was the time when I was addressing assembled journalists at the Christian Science Monitor breakfast, and I talked about the importance of the VA improving service and building trust with Veterans. I talked about how the media focus solely on Veteran wait times was actually counterproductive. That service was more than just wait times. The media focus on wait times caused VA to not give appointments in advance for, for example, annual physicals, since they didn’t want the media reporting 12-month wait times. I talked about how great customer-service companies use Human Centered Design to improve service and build trust. Unfortunately, some media outlets misconstrued my statements and headlined that I was comparing Veteran healthcare appointments to waiting in line for rides at an amusement park. Obviously, that was not my intent.
In politics there is always an opposition, and that opposition will look for opportunities to criticize the current administration. In this case I had a leading member of Congress I knew relatively well criticize me publicly. When I called him, he said, “Bob, that’s politics.” My response was that politics was not an excuse for lacking character.
When I spoke to the Veteran group at the Bush Presidential Center, I told them to always remember President Teddy Roosevelt’s speech on April 23, 1910, entitled “Citizenship In A Republic,” delivered in Paris, France.
“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”
Another way to say this is what I learned at West Point and the U. S. Army, “If not me, who?” During my Senate confirmation hearing to be Secretary of the VA, I was often asked, “Why do you want this thankless task?” And the answer was always the same, “If not me, who?” Our country was made the greatest country in the history of the world by millions of Americans answering this call, “If not me, who?” By millions of Americans deliberately making themselves vulnerable by being the man or woman in the arena. These Americans had a sense of personal and collective purpose. They committed their lives to making a difference. And while every single person who went into the arena may not have succeeded, their collective effort over time has led to the greatest country on earth.
Isn’t this July 4 a great time to ask ourselves, “If not me, who?” and recommit ourselves to going into the arena to make a difference in the life of at least one person each day?
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