For as long as I can remember, I have considered public service — that is, making the public welfare a life's work — to be a noble calling. From our smallest towns to our largest cities and institutions, the example of Americans serving others has inspired and motivated me. In my mind, the act of public service directly contributes to the democratic ideals of a vibrant and engaged citizenry that the founders regarded as vital to our form of government.
There is no question that a government career, whether at the federal, state or other level, can be challenging. As Benjamin Franklin quipped: "The first mistake in public business is the going into it." Public service is not easy — it is continually buffeted not only by political, social and economic winds but by real internal tensions within our Constitution. Democracy, as Franklin noted, is "an invitation to struggle."
Nevertheless, and fortunately for our nation, many choose to go into public service and they perform extraordinarily well. I have enjoyed the privilege of serving alongside some of our nation's most dedicated public servants — the men and women of the U.S. military, including our active, Guard, Reserve and civilian airmen of the Air Force. Every day they continue to be an inspiration and an example to follow.
Our military has a tradition of upholding the highest standards of service. Our Total Force Airmen protect and defend our nation in many different ways — from combat operations overseas, to natural disaster response, to effective management of space systems on which we all rely, just to name a few. And in the business of national security, the cost of even small errors may be the loss of life.
These high standards are captured in the Air Force's core values: Integrity First, Service Before Self and Excellence In All We Do. These enduring values serve as our anchor, and their adoption by one and all binds us together. Our core values define the character of our service, just as freedom defines America.
The same holds true for all those in public service — inside and outside the military. These values can serve as important guiding principles for America's public servants everywhere. This is important, because it is not always individual accomplishments that define successful service but rather how one serves and the values reflected that matter most.
For example, integrity is the willingness to do what is right, even when no one is looking. While this is important in all walks of life, it is especially important in public service. The American public entrusts government employees with vast amounts of resources and authorities. This is a great responsibility and our nation understandably counts on its public servants to perform their duties with integrity and professionalism.
Service before self is the essence of what it means to be in public service. It means putting personal interests aside and serving the greater good first. No matter the organization, the act of serving others before oneself is a core value that strengthens our communities and our nation. It is recognition that public service is more than just a job — it is a responsibility and a precious opportunity to make a difference.
Finally, excellence means always challenging oneself to do better. It means never being completely satisfied and always looking for ways to improve. Every day, thousands of acts of excellence are carried out by public servants throughout the United States and other locations all over the world. Together, these acts create the kind of society we all want to live in. Therefore, sustaining that excellence continues to be of vital importance.
Considering today's difficult economic and political environment, Franklin had it right when he said public service can be tough. However, strength of commitment to the highest standards and to core values provides a path to success and effectiveness in challenging times. Our public servants prove this every day as they nobly serve with integrity, selflessness and excellence at every level of government. And for that, our nation can be thankful.
Michael B. Donley is secretary of the Air Force.