Former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who was fired in March by President Trump, urged Virginia Military Institute graduates on Wednesday to confront a “crisis of ethics and integrity” and warned them to “carefully consider the values and culture of the organizations in which you seek to work.”
Tillerson was ousted in March, when he learned via tweet that he had been fired after months of disputes with Trump. Tillerson never mentioned Trump by name in his commencement speech on Wednesday, but he appeared to make several veiled references to the President as he criticized the state of political discourse today.
Tillerson asked Americans to “preserve and protect our freedom by recognizing what truth is and is not, what a fact is and is not” and to “demand our pursuit of America’s future be fact-based, not based on wishful thinking, not hoped-for outcomes made in shallow promises.”
“If we do not, as Americans, confront the crisis of ethics and integrity in our society and among our leaders in both public and private sector — and regrettably, at times, even the nonprofit sector — then American democracy, as we know it, is entering its twilight years,” Tillerson said.
At one point, Tillerson said he held his favorite job when he was a division manager at Exxon in the early 1990s, overseeing parts of Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas and Colorado. “It was the best job I ever had. It’s all been downhill since,” he said, laughing and drawing applause from the audience.
“In your career, you will have occasions where it may appear easier to take a shortcut. The pressure you feel may come from within, that you need to impress others or that you need to have all the answers,” Tillerson said. “Unfortunately, it may also come from your organization or directly from a supervisor or a coworker.”
“Maintain and protect who you are, and remember that being a person with integrity is the most valuable asset you have,” Tillerson said Wednesday. “Don’t ever let anyone take it from you. Carefully consider the values and culture of the organizations in which you seek to work. Look for employers who set high standards for personal conduct and who reward ethical leadership. Identify mentors who exemplify integrity and leadership excellence. Developing as a leader largely comes from also practicing good followership. See how the leaders you are following carry themselves, how they manage their responsibilities, study how they communicate and make decisions, observe how they learn from mistakes and missteps — their own and those of others.”
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Write to Katie Reilly at Katie.Reilly@time.com