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My Coast Guard
Commentary | March 2, 2021

Let’s talk diversity in a fireside chat

Former Department of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson spoke about diversity and leadership during a recent virtual "fireside chat" at the Coast Guard Academy.

Johnson’s son, U.S. Coast Guard Lt. j.g. Jeh Johnson Jr., is currently assigned to Tactical Law Enforcement, South, in Miami. The younger Johnson joined the discussion, along with Coast Guard Vice Commandant Charles Ray, Academy leadership and cadets.

Secretary Johnson noted that new DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas had been his deputy secretary.  "I know him well and I think he will be a terrific service secretary for the U.S. Coast Guard, and support the mission at every opportunity."

The event was "part of a larger effort to develop the most inclusive Coast Guard Academy with the goal of achieving a state of being here on board the Academy where your race, your gender and your ethnicity will no longer be a predictor of your success or failure here at the Academy or out in our broader Coast Guard," said CGA Superintendent RADM Bill Kelly.

Secretary Johnson talked about how the military's diversity leadership has helped it become one of the most respected U.S. institutions.

"The military was ahead of civilian society in the 40s and 50s when it integrated itself," he said. "The U.S. military, Coast Guard included, is one of the most integrated diverse institutions in American life now. And one of the reasons for that, as you all know better than me, it's all about the unit - it's not about the individual. It's about unit cohesion, service, following orders, command control, and the unit - not the individual."

His family has seen the country's diversity and inclusion story unfold in many ways over the generations.

"My own grandfather, who served and saw combat in World War 1, was called before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1949 to deny that he was a member of the Communist Party," Johnson said. "He gave his testimony in the ... very same hearing room where I gave my annual testimony before the House oversight committee."

He said that diversity is something that we promote one person - and one interaction - at a time. That same theme of individuality came up as part of the conversation around leadership.

Secretary Johnson's leadership theory is that there's no one right way to lead - it's simply being the best version of yourself. "When President Obama asked me to be the Secretary of Homeland Security, I thought to myself, am I supposed to emulate Bob Gates, or should I emulate Leon Panetta? Then it occurred to me, he's asking me to be Secretary of Homeland Security so I can be the best version of Jeh Johnson.

Father and son offered inspirational parting words:

  • Secretary Johnson: “You are smarter than you know, and stronger than you realize.” 
  •  Lt. j.g. Johnson: “Become brilliant in the basics.”

Check out some of our favorite moments from the fireside chat, in the video above.