WASHINGTON—Former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson warned that a crisis in integrity and ethics among America’s leaders is putting the country’s freedom and democracy at risk, delivering the message in an impassioned commencement address at the Virginia Military Institute.

Mr. Tillerson, speaking to graduates in a rare public appearance since he was fired by President Donald Trump via a Twitter message two months ago, said every American citizen has a duty to seek the truth and hold leaders accountable.

“If our leaders seek to conceal the truth, or we as people become accepting of alternative realities that are no longer grounded in facts, then we as American citizens are on a pathway to relinquishing our freedom,” he said, drawing parallels with life in Russia, Iran and North Korea.

The former chief diplomat did not explicitly name Mr. Trump in his speech, but the address appeared to refer to Mr. Trump’s frequent clashes with news organizations. A spokeswoman for Mr. Tillerson did not respond to a request for further comment.

“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…then American democracy as we know it is entering its twilight years,” Mr. Tillerson said.

He urged VMI graduates to resist temptation and easy gain, which would surface early in their careers. Leadership is not conveyed by title, he said, but would come through committing to moral behavior throughout life.

“We do not have to look far to find examples of the cost to individuals and to society when integrity is sacrificed for immediate gain or personal achievement,” he said.

Mr. Tillerson, a former Exxon Mobil Corp. chief executive, joked about his own career and appeared to make an indirect reference to his troubled 14-month tenure at the State Department, saying that his career had peaked in the early 1990s as a division manager for the oil company.

“All I ever wanted to do. Was the best job I ever had. It’s all been downhill since,” he said, to laughter and applause from the audience.

Write to Jessica Donati at Jessica.Donati@wsj.com

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