The 12th Annual Jim Blanchard Leadership Forum kicked off Monday with a one-two punch centered on the perils facing the United States and the critical need for strong, innovative leadership to overcome dangerous challenges that lie ahead for the nation.
U.S. Sen. David Perdue of Georgia, a former corporate chief executive officer now serving his first term, was followed by Maj. Gen. Eric Wesley, who last year took charge of the U.S. Army Maneuver Center of Excellence at Fort Benning.
Perdue, cousin of former Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue and current U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, focused on the mounting financial debt the U.S. faces, combined with an increasingly troublesome world, as the ingredients for his address, calling for the development of leaders interested in serving the nation and not themselves.
“Nothing could be more important for our country and our world,” said Perdue, who served four decades in the corporate world, leading Reebok and Dollar General before taking office in January 2015.
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“We see true leadership when the heat turns up, when the game is on the line, when the patient is on the table, when the business is about to go bankrupt and, yes, when the bullets begin to fly,” Perdue told those gathered at Columbus Convention and Trade Center for the two-day event.
Outside the venue Monday, the junior Republican senator, who serves on the banking, budget, armed services and agriculture committees, was greeted by a small group called Indivisible Columbus Ga, holding a “Distance Yourself from Trump” rally. The President Donald Trump resistance group is a statewide organization.
Perdue rarely referred to Trump during his presentation, however. Instead, he at times lambasted both political sides of Congress for failing to act in the best interests of the country and its problems as the national debt grows and global threats increase. He said most of those in Washington, D.C., were more interested in getting re-elected than in doing what’s best for the country as a whole.
“There can be no doubt, we are in a republic-threatening crisis of our own making, and we need strong leadership to help dig ourselves out of this,” Perdue said, explaining a key quality of leadership.
“In the real world, true leaders are usually easy to identify. They’re the ones getting results,” he said. “In the real world, there’s just something in which most people in Washington have no exposure to. I watch — whether it’s business, sports, medicine, the military — people become top leaders because they have traversed this pyramid of performance. Leaders rise to the top of that pyramid because of one reason, and that is their focus, their talent, and their sense of responsibility in getting results.”
The senator, painting himself as somewhat of a political outsider because of his corporate background, said it boils down to there’s no sense of urgency in Congress. He pointed to the lack of quality candidates in last year’s presidential election, the lack of candidates with a record of getting results, as the perfect example of how not to hire for the top job.
“We hire a president of the United States differently than you will hire an executive vice president in your company. That’s got to change,” Perdue said. “We elect senators in a way you wouldn’t hire a janitor. We’ve got to change that ... I’m telling you that we have a dramatic lack of leadership, that the overwhelming drive in Washington is to get re-elected. It drives everything. In reality, there are few leaders in Congress willing to take tough votes or make a hard decision to get results.”
But, on the flip side, Perdue expressed optimism and hopefulness that America can overcome its problems. Those include a dramatically reduced and badly maintained military, and a federal budget now busting at the seams and on the path to becoming even worse.
He recalled someone’s comment asking why Americans can’t walk hand in hand even if they don’t see eye to eye. When did it become mandatory for those who disagree on issues to be enemies, he remarked, jokingly pondering what it would be like if John Adams and Thomas Jefferson had the ability to tweet their thoughts back in the day.
“Here we sit with a debt that’s bigger than our economy with $100 trillion (more) coming at us, and nobody’s addressing it in our public officials,” the senator said. “You deserve better than that. Our kids deserve better, our grandkids. But we simply have to come together and find compromise to change the direction.”
Perdue gave way to Wesley, who leads a Fort Benning military installation that will celebrate its 100th anniversary next year. An armor officer, the general began his career in 1986 after graduating from the U.S. Military Academy. He served during Operation Desert Spring in Kuwait and during Iraqi Freedom, which toppled the government of Saddam Hussein. That was followed by later combat action in Iraq and deployments to Afghanistan.
The general said he agrees with Perdue that the world is more dangerous now than it has ever been. He later commented in a brief question-and-answer session that prime on the military’s threat radar are Russia, China, Iran, North Korea and Islamic extremists. He also said Fort Benning has contributed well during past conflicts over the past century.
“When you look back at every other crisis that this nation has been involved in, every single time, the center of gravity or the solution for that problem, was here at Fort Benning, Ga.,” Wesley said. “Leadership in this day and age is indispensable. Leadership will enable us to carve our way forward in an uncertain and very dangerous world.
The general also pointed out the leadership that Columbus has been fortunate to have through the years, particularly the vision to land a large military installation in a south Georgia textile town, then diversify from a mill economy and attract Olympic softball.
Wesley called leadership in general an “internal elusive calling,” but “probably one of the greatest privileges, honors and responsibilities in any profession that you can have.” He tossed out a definition for a leader that appeared certain to have the forum audience contemplating whether they measured up.
“In the end, the leader is one who integrates and optimizes all of the resources at his disposal, in order to reach into the soul of a man or a woman and lead them to a place they never would have arrived but for your presence,” he said. “That’s a powerful thought.”
The general said the “idea of leadership” has become more and more elusive each year of his career as the nature of people change and sizes of organizations increase. He centered on the ability to inspire others to lead, terming it an “infused culture of leadership.”
“In the Army, we are fortunate in that we have a culture and legacy of leadership that stares down at us all the time,” he said, showing photos of U.S. Generals George Patton, George Marshall, Omar Bradley, Dwight Eisenhower and Colin Powell.
Wesley also recalled a moment in his career while with the 2nd Brigade, 3rd Infantry Division at Fort Stewart, Ga., with a unit known as “The Send Me” brigade, which participated in the 2003 toppling of Baghdad, Iraq. It was a moment for learning how sound leadership should be “immaterial to personal gain,” he said. At the time, the military’s fast pace and deployments had become “somewhat of a drain” on his ability to manage his own family at home, he said.
“I remember my father-in-law was in town and he’s a retired colonel, infantry guy, and a pretty powerful personality,” Wesley said. “I remember one evening saying to him, ‘Dad, at what cost does one continue to pursue that calling (of leadership)?’ Mind you, this is the father of my bride. He looks at me straight in the eye, with steely cold eyes, and he says, ‘Eric, sometimes it’s total cost.’”
Rounding out the Monday session of the Jim Blanchard Leadership Forum was Dan Rose, vice president of partnerships at Facebook, Amy Cuddy, a New York Times best-selling author, and Academy Award-winning actress Octavia Spencer, the featured speaker for the forum.