Significant Speeches

Remarks of the Honorable David J. Hickton
United States Attorney for the Western District of Pennsylvania
at the 9th Annual Student Athlete Leadership Academy
of Western Pennsylvania

Chatham University
Pittsburgh, PA
August 2, 2013

Thank you, Win, for that generous introduction and for all you do each and every day as the coach of at least three teams and as Athletic Director at Sewickley Academy. Your faithful service and valuable mentorship of your students is deeply appreciated.

Thank you to UPMC and particularly Amy Kimball for hosting this program for developing leadership in our student-athletes here in Western Pennsylvania.

It is a privilege for me to be here. I am honored to be in the presence of so many present and future leaders. It is a tribute to all of you that you would invest in this program to develop your skill as leaders. Despite popular notions to the contrary, leadership is learned and developed. Even the “born leader” has room to improve. I hope my presence and comments contribute to your experience.

I am excited about your generation. I believe that you are community-focused; concerned about energy and the environment; interested in sustainability; intent on eliminating world-wide terror; focused upon freedom, justice and equal opportunity for all Americans; and working to eliminate poverty and injustice around the world. I am hopeful and optimistic that your generation will lead the way to a better world. I suspect your present concern is to develop the skills to help your team win a WPIAL Championship but be mindful that high school sports is also a learning laboratory for leadership skills which will sustain you as an adult, in your family, in your career and as a contributing and productive member of society. Keep your eye on the ball, too.

Today, I want to share with you my view on important leadership qualities; leadership challenges and opportunities and share with you why leadership matters. To make it more interesting, I will share some stories and fables including a couple of my own experiences from high school and in my present work. We want to be sure to leave some time for questions, which I will take at the end.

I believe there are four essential qualities of a great leader. They are: integrity; courage; vision; and humility.

Integrity means that you are honest and faithful. I mean you tell the truth and live the truth-all the time. Being faithful means total commitment to the team and/or the cause you have been honored to lead. Real leaders are self-aware, analytical and candid. They are critical in a positive way to seek continuous personal and group improvement. Faux leaders believe the ends justify the means; that it is okay to bend and compromise principle; that it is not dishonest if nobody finds out and that it is alright to seek personal benefit as a perk of their leadership status. Real leaders want to win the right way; they do not cheat; they do not scheme against others through secrecy and deceit but instead discuss matters openly - they put it on the table and reason honestly and with courage to winning conclusions.

Courage means a willingness to make the correct decisions and create the proper environment whether popular or unpopular. Great leaders are willing to accept conflict and dissent and understand disaster will occur if one lacks the guts to do so. Let me contrast for you the courage of one of our greatest leaders President Abraham Lincoln with an air crash disaster 30 years ago.

President Lincoln took Office at the most perilous point in our Nation’s history. We were in a Civil War which threatened our very existence and our future was in doubt. Lincoln was severely and savagely criticized and very unpopular. Yet he had the insight and courage to understand that he could not lead and succeed unless he surrounded himself in his Cabinet with some of his rivals and critics. In so doing he put his comfort and security secondary to his mission of leading our Country out of crisis. Lincoln created an environment of dissent and debate because he understood the stakes were so high that his popularity was irrelevant and his courageous willingness to make correct decisions saved the United States from fracture.

Contrast this with the cockpit environment on Air Florida Flight 90 which crashed into the Potomac River after take-off from Washington National Airport (Reagan Airport) on January 10, 1982. Seventy-nine people died in that accident, including both pilots. Much has been written about this accident, and the crash was caused by several factors; but, for our purposes today, I want to focus upon the interactions between the pilot and co-pilot captured on the cockpit voice recordings.

It was clear they both knew the plane needed to be de-iced prior to take-off. However, it seems they were worried about further delaying the flight. It appears that the co-pilot did not assert himself sufficiently and there was a discussion about an alternative course moving closer to another plane in the take-off line to de-ice the wings using the engine exhaust of the other jet. This clearly was a conflict avoidance discussion to avoid a confrontation. The plane took off, never achieved sufficient positive lift and crashed into the river. This crash demonstrates the need for candor and debate within a command structure, and the disastrous consequences of “going along to get along.”

Sometime this year, your courage will be challenged in an issue with a coach or a teammate. What do you do if a teammate is not committing to the team or will not run the coaches game plan? What if the coach is playing favorites or inattentive to dissention on the team? Do you speak up? How do you approach the problem? You will be tested when you meet this fork in the road. Will you have the integrity and courage to speak up? I encourage you to be courageous. Confront issues directly, fairly and honestly. Be constructive. It will be hard in the short term, but the consequences—good or bad—will flow from your decision.

Vision means seeing the path to success. Great leaders often see opportunities that followers miss. This may involve a particular play or game or understanding team chemistry or how the schedule aligns. In my view, great leaders demonstrate great vision by having a superior sense of timing and understanding the interplay between the big picture and the small details. Let me give you a couple of examples. Both Ben Roethlisberger and Tom Brady arrived as rookies on teams which had entrenched quarterbacks in Tommy Maddox and Drew Bledsoe who were top draft picks themselves and very successful veterans. Yet both Big Ben and Tom Brady and their coaches had the vision and the courage to know that they could take over the Quarterback position for the good of their teams.

President Obama was urged by political leaders to wait to run for President at some later point and he had the vision and courage to see that his time was now.

Martin Luther King Jr. led the civil rights effort in the late 1950s and 60s and coined the phrase which I use so often that we must embrace the “fierce urgency of now” and his vision and courage led to equal justice and freedom for many Americans who had been discriminated against and denied our promises of liberty. His vision and courage to act and not wait changed the world.

John Adams at the time of the American Revolution was reportedly often confronted with doubt and unclear vision about our battle for independence. His wife, Abigail, helped him find his inspiration with a quote from Shakespeare which is also one of my favorites:

There is a time in the affairs of man, which taken at the flood, leads to fortune;

Omitted, all the voyage of their life is bound in the shallow and in miseries…

And, we must take the current when it serves, or lose our ventures.

This is not a dress rehearsal. We have only finite time on this earth, and you only have four years in high school. Commit fully. Lead your teammates to be all in. You will not regret it nor—will they. Lead others to see the path to success and help them find the courage to follow it. You cannot assure yourself or others that you will win, but I promise you that you will have no regrets if you commit.

Vision also means understanding the big picture and the importance of the small details. The best two examples to illustrate this are the late General George Patton and the late John Wooden, former UCLA Basketball Coach.

General Patton is considered one of the best infantry generals in the history of warfare. His career was chronicled in the Movie “Patton”, and he has been the subject of many books. By all accounts he was a fierce, unrelenting leader both tough with and protective of the soldiers under his command and so successful that the Nazi Command in WWII was obsessed with his movements. Coach Wooden is considered perhaps the greatest basketball coach ever winning 10 NCAA titles in 12 years - including 7 in a row - and leading UCLA to an amazing 88-game winning streak.

Both General Patton and Coach Wooden were brilliant strategists, and they possessed unequaled skill at defining and executing the big picture or map to success. It is interesting to note they are also remembered for obsessive attention to the small details reflecting in their common attention to foot blisters. Coach Wooden began each season with a first practice ritual of instruction on how to put socks on to avoid blisters. General Patton demanded accountability from his troops for foot care and specifically the condition of their socks. Both leaders understood the greatest big picture strategy could be foiled by foot blisters.

Pay attention to both big issues and small details in your world. If a teammate does not have a ride, is behind on homework putting suspension risk in play or having personal problems, these seemingly small details, relative to who we are playing, what is their record and how are we going to win, are going to be big issues.

Humility means gratitude and appreciation. This is evidenced as being respectful of yourself, your teammates, your coaches, your fans and your opponents. It involves recognizing the value of everyone—no one on the team is more important than another. There are no stars without the grinders.

Through an unusual set of circumstances, I was blessed to get to know the late Neil Armstrong, the first man to walk on the moon. Neil was a great man in so many ways, but to me he was defined by his humility. As perhaps the most famous person in the world and maybe the greatest explorer in history, Neil Armstrong was shy and private and never profited from his fame - he used his talents and position only to serve. Once, I asked him directly about this and he shared with me privately what was attributed to him in public comments: “while I had the honor to be the first man on the moon, my role was part of a team, and my job was no more important and certainly dependent upon the good work of thousands of others - it was a team effort.”

I loved and miss Neil Armstrong. He is one of my heroes. He stood for lost principles: Aspire to be good not famous - fame and positive reviews will follow greatness. Good works are tangible - fame is fleeting. Be a team player. Be humble.

I urge you to revive these lost principles. Value your opportunities including your chance to be captain of your team. Treat everyone with respect; the captain and the stars are no better than the grinders and substitutes. Everyone is part of the team. Respect the competition that you are part of, including your opponents and their fans. Enhance the experience through respect. Aspire to be the best, to play against the best and to win with respect and dignity. I will share with you a little secret; if you do these things, you will be more successful.

None of this is easy. You will face difficulties. The great leaders in history all struggled. Each faced doubt and fear. All great leaders endure criticism. Sometimes the path is not clear. Often, the temptation is to take the easy way out. The natural desire to avoid pain, avoid conflict and to be popular distorts your view and can rationalize the wrong choice. Be mindful of those challenges and have the integrity, courage, vision and humility to be a leader.

Do not be overwhelmed. It is doubtful that any of you will be called to lead and sacrifice like Nelson Mandela has done to eliminate apartheid in South Africa or Aung San Suu Kui has to eliminate oppression in Burma. It is doubtful that your challenges will be on the scale of the late Herb Brooks who coached the underdog 1980 USA Hockey Team to a Gold medal. Your present challenges will likely be like mine were when I was your age: how to deal with a good but underperforming team. I will share that story with you during the question and discussion to follow especially as it relates to how I try to lead today. But you can learn from these heroes and especially their servant style leadership which, in my opinion, is the ideal.

You see, while this is about you today, leadership is not about you, it is about those you serve. This is not a title; it is a responsibility. You are not to “be”; you are to “do”. You serve as a leader; you do not rule. Your job is to inspire others through your virtue to create a team of leaders. If your team sees you as honest, as courageous, as visionary and as humble, they will follow your example; they will also lead. If you are viewed as self-absorbed, self-interested, dis-engaged, unwilling to speak up, unwilling to fight or endure criticism, you will not serve yourself or your team. You will be a bad leader and your team will fail.

In the great history of civilization, great leadership has been indispensable to progress. One of the reasons we follow and encourage sports is because it is a metaphor for the serious pursuits of life and sports teach life lessons. One of those life lessons is leadership. We look for and honor heroic leadership in sport, in war, in business and in life. We need great leaders.

So, in conclusion, I salute you. You are among our best and brightest. Seize the moment and your opportunity. Do something special. Be a part of something special.

Thank you. I would be happy to entertain your questions.

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