Adm. Leighton Smith Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley
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Admiral Smith, welcome to Berkeley.
Thank you very much Harry. It's great to be here with you.
Why a military career?
Well I didn't want to raise pigs! I have a uncle who had gone to the Naval Academy and spent a number of years in the navy. I didn't know him that well when I was in high school, but I knew there was something better than what I was doing, and frankly, I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life. And the opportunity came for me to apply to the Naval Academy. I did. I must admit to you that it looked very attractive, guys in uniforms -- the Naval Academy is a very prestigious place, and I choose to try it. I got there and darn near didn't pass, just about flunked out the first year, but a commandant by the name of Bush Bringle managed to call me in one day and taught me more about leadership in about 15 minutes than I have learned in the rest of my life. And because of Bush Bringle I regained some faith and confidence in myself, learning I had a little bit more in me than I thought, and I went back to work and finished.
What did he teach you about leadership?
I think he understood that I had about given up on myself. And he knew how to restore my faith in myself. He said, "Midshipman Smith, you have ten days to get set in everything." And when I walked out of his office I made a commitment to myself that I wasn't going back into that office under any condition other than the one I wanted, not the ones he wanted. I didn't want to go back and see him again. He was not angry, was not unpleasant. He was very straightforward, but he recognized that there was something there, he recognized that I could do it and he essentially told me I could.
Your career is quite remarkable. It spans the Vietnam War, service in Europe, the Persian Gulf, and all of our peacekeeping efforts now in this post - Cold War world. Did your education prepare you for all of these different hats and the changes in the world that you've seen?
Well, I'm not sure it was the education or the training -- I think there is a difference between the two -- but certainly the experience I had, the people I met over time, gave me insights in how to deal with people. And I must tell you, Harry, in all the situations that I have been involved in, it really boils down to dealing with people. Understanding how to get the most out of the individuals with whom you are working, understanding how to make them want to make the best of themselves, and again I go back to Bush Bringle -- drawing the most out of people, empowering your subordinates, allowing them to give you the best that they can without being inhibited in any way. All of that sort of led me down this path, and of course the other part of it was that I just loved it. I was a naval aviator, I flew on and off aircraft carriers. I frankly cannot imagine having done anything else with my life.
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