You may have heard of the recent racist incident at USAFA (United States Air Force Academy).  You may also have seen the reaction of the superintendent of the Academy Lt. General Jay Silveria. 

If you have not followed this, five cadets at the Academy’s preparatory school in Colorado Springs were the subject of racially abusive messages written on the message boards on their doors.

Silveria’s reaction was to gather the 5,000 staff and students at the Academy in one space and in a powerful speech lasting little over 5 minutes make his views crystal clear.

There is a link to Lt. General Silveria’s speech at the bottom of this article.

I watched it over several times and reflected on what made it so powerful.

Here’s my take on the speech:

Immediate: Silveria did not need time to reflect, for an inquiry, for things to quieten down.  The message was all the more powerful for not sitting on it, coming up with positioning or spin.

Clear: Silveria did not complicate his response, neither did he oversimplify it.  There was a very clear core theme which he started with, stuck with and finished with – if you cannot treat people with respect, get out, supported by a small number of sub-themes.

Calm: Silveria needed no histrionics, no shouting, no table thumping, no hyperbole – just straight talk, clearly from the heart.   He appeared visibly angry but totally in control.

Unequivocal: If you cannot treat with dignity and respect get out; If you demean others get out; If you cannot treat someone from another race with dignity and respect get out.  Silveria left not a sliver of doubt about the values he expected.

In Context: Silveria acknowledged the wider context – such as Charlottesville – acknowledging they would be naïve not to discuss.  He did not, however, let this to detract from his message.

Brave: Silveria made no swipe at POTUS, but it was very apparent in his references to Charlottesville and the wider context that he would not tolerate what POTUS might (or might even encourage).  Silveria did not bow to authority, where that authority had no moral standing. In the line he took he may well have put his own career in danger – that is what brave leaders do in the pursuit of what is right:

Centred:  It’s our institution, no one can take this away, we make our values.  Again, Silveria made it clear that strong organisations do the right thing, at times despite the prevailing winds around them.

Open:  Silveria made it clear they had had, and would continue to have, a discussion around the issues.  He was not saying we cannot talk about diversity and what it means – but he was unequivocal about respect.

Enduring: Silveria even gave his students the chance to pull their phones out and record him. If you need my words keep these words, share my words. He made it clear people should take his message with them, use it for strength, use it to show others.  In doing so he gave it life in time and geography.

A Better Idea: One of the most powerful things Silveria did was not just to denounce the racism but provide an alternative – We have a better idea. That idea – making it very clear that the very diversity of the Academy enhances its strength.   Diversity of views, of approach, or thought gives strength.

We are of an age when business, society and government need leaders stepping up with a powerful message on human decency and integrity rather than letting our businesses be directed by those who would have us drop our standards, divide us, promote or tolerate intolerance.

Silveria’s message is a strong to listen to of itself.  It’s even stronger if you take some of its strengths back into your own organisations and learn not only from the message but the approach.  Once you have listened to it, you too may decide it is worth sharing.  Feel free to share these observations too or contact us with your own thoughts.

Here’s the link to Lt. General Silveria’s speech:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WfjZ1otkS3o

Or if you are blocked from YouTube in your office:

https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2017/sep/29/air-force-academy-general-racism-jay-silveria