The former senator, naval secretary and author talked with members of the GW LEAD program about his career achievements.
By B.L. Wilson
James H. Webb’s accomplishments are impressive, from Marine Corps captain to secretary of the Navy, the author of 10 books as well as U.S. senator from Virginia. It was a pattern set early in life perhaps as a child in a military family that moved 30 times before he graduated from high school.
“I just made the decision that I was going to take one challenge at a time,” Mr. Webb said. “Whatever it was, I was going to find something that I can give 100 percent to.”
Then, he would find something else to do the best he could at that as well. “That’s why I have this career that’s all over the place.”
Though he is regarded by some as a mercurial figure, there has always been one constant. “I know who I am,” he said, proffering advice Wednesday evening to the LEAD cohort graduating from GW in 2018.
“You know who you are. You know you want to produce. That is the constant,” he said. “You don’t change who you are when you are working in a different environment.”
Mr. Webb spoke at the fourth annual LEAD Distinguished Speakers series. LEAD, which stands for leadership, education and development, is a master’s program for junior U.S. Navy and Marine Corps officers that blends course work from the GW Department of Organizational Sciences and Communication and the USNA’s Leadership Division.
Addressing the 16 junior officers who will serve as role models and company officers and teach midshipmen at the academy, Clay Warren, GW director of the LEAD program and the Chauncey M. Depew Professor of Communication and organizational sciences, said, “The LEAD program at GW is about helping you find a better way to frame your questions about leadership so you will be better able to discover an appropriate answer for yourself.”
Dr. Warren was a 1968 USNA classmate of Mr. Webb during a tumultuous period in the U.S., fraught with assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Sen. Robert F. Kennedy. He noted the academy produced a number of graduates that year who would have notable careers, including a chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, a NASA administrator, secretary of the Navy and U.S. senator.
The two minored in literature and shared an appreciation for poetry and writing they have pursued since those days at the academy. For the author of the heralded Vietnam War novel, “Fields of Fire,” Mr. Webb’s prolific writing career has been a source of glory and grief.
He explained the story behind a 1979 Washingtonian magazine article titled “Women Can’t Fight” that led to angry protests by alumnae of the U.S. Naval Academy when he was chosen to receive the academy’s Distinguished Graduate Award.
“Obviously, people can’t get beyond the title. I looked at that title and thought this is going to destroy the whole discussion,” he said.
The article was written 38 years ago after President Jimmy Carter called for the removal of all combat restrictions in the military. “The country was not ready for this,” he said. “The military was not ready for this.”
In 1987, as secretary of the Navy, the first from the U.S. Naval Academy to serve in that position, Mr. Webb formed a task force of 28 men and women senior field officers. He asked them “to define the permissible role of women in the Navy, not because some politician said it.”
The result, he said, was the opening of more positions for women than had occurred under any previous Navy secretary.
Nevertheless, he turned down the award. “I had had enough recognition in my life and didn’t want to stir up a lot of stuff and ruin a good day,” he said.
The LEAD cohort asked the former senator who made a brief foray into the Democratic presidential primaries in 2016 if he could have defeated Mr. Trump in the general election. He declined to comment, and then said, “If I had a billion dollars, I might have a different answer.”