This week, U.S. Naval Institute CEO Pete Daly and Proceedings Editor-in-Chief Bill Hamblet interviewed retired Navy Admiral William McRaven about leadership and Naval Special Warfare. Hear more from Admiral McRaven’s public talk on 23 June in the Naval Postgraduate School’s “Secretary of the Navy Guest Lecture Series”.
Vice Admiral Daly: Sir, I’m going to ask the first question, which is: How is leading in the military different than leading in the corporate world or the academic world?
Admiral McRaven: I don’t think the fundamentals of leadership are really any different. When I transitioned from the military to the world of academics and healthcare—the University of Texas system has fourteen institutions, six of which are major healthcare institutions—I found that the skills I had learned in the Navy transitioned completely to the academic world and corporate world. Leadership skills are first and foremost: listen, make sure you understand the mission you’re trying to accomplish; empower your people to do that mission; give them the resources and latitude to do the job; hold them accountable; and hold yourself accountable.
All the things we understand in the military work well in academia. I always had to laugh when people would talk about the challenges of working in an academic environment, and they would say something to the effect of, “Well, in the military, every time you tell somebody to do something, they just do it.” And I would say, “Well, then you never spent a day in the military.” Because, in the military, like anyplace else, you have to set the conditions for success. You have to inspire the men and women who work for you. You have to manage them correctly and give them the resources. Sometimes they don’t do exactly what you expect them to do, and you’ve got to be able to manage that as well. It’s no different in academia or the corporate world.
Vice Admiral Daly: So true. I love that line about “if you believe that, you’ve never served a day in the military.” So, I wanted to ask what you make of the high-profile cases of moral and ethical failures in the Navy. We’ve had the GDMA [Glenn Defense Marine Asia] or “Fat Leonard” scandal. We’ve had the [Edward] Eddie Gallagher case. Do these point to any particular solution, in your mind, about what should be done? Is there a need for more ethics training? Is there a model that could be adapted or employed to help this situation?
Admiral McRaven: I don’t know whether more ethics training is required, though more emphasis on ethics is certainly necessary. But having said that, in the military, these events have happened throughout the course of our history. One of the things the military does exceedingly well is when events like this happen, we step back, we reflect on them, we try to figure out the root causes of the problem. Then we try to fix it. That doesn’t mean that it won’t occur again, or it wasn’t egregious, or that there aren’t things that we can learn from it. But the military is a reflective, introspective organization when it comes to our failures, and I think this is what strengthens us. Every time we make a mistake, we figure out how we’re going to improve on the problem and then move forward, and I think that’s what we’re doing with these cases now.
Captain Hamblet: Admiral, you were commissioned during the Cold War era, which was an era of great-power competition. Then for much of your service, you were focused on violent extremist organizations and counterterrorism. How are the nation’s Special Operations forces adapting to the switch back to great-power competition?
Admiral McRaven: I think there is always a balance between great-power competition, supporting conventional forces, and our classic role in terms of everything from direct action to counterinsurgency to counterterrorism. The Special Operations community can move quickly from one end of the spectrum to the other. So, dealing with threats from great powers is something that we routinely work at with direct-action missions against high-value targets in any adversary country. We know how to come in from the air, from the surface, from the subsurface. We understand the threat. We understand what skills, techniques, and tools we must have to overcome that particular threat and get to the target. And conversely, we are always going to be working on what was historically called the low-end of the spectrum, low-intensity conflict, because those problems are always going to be on our doorstep.
So, I am not concerned at all that the Special Operations forces will have a problem adjusting to whatever the nature of the fight might be. We bring people in to the Special Operations community, not because (or just because) they can run a two-hour-and-thirty-minute marathon or do 100 pushups or pullups, but because they can think on their feet and be critical thinkers at times of crisis. Not only at the tactical level, but at the strategic level. And conventional forces do the same thing. The military is looking for men and women who can think through tough problems, adjust on the fly, and adapt to whatever situation comes up. I think we’ve done that well over the years.
Captain Hamblet: A follow-on to that question, sir. Is the procurement system keeping up with the sort of cutting-edge technology and weapon systems that the military needs now to compete against the Chinese or the Russians as they modernize their forces very quickly?
Admiral McRaven: The acquisition system has always been under attack. I was a young lieutenant when I first showed up at the Pentagon in OP-03. This was 1986, and we were working on the Maritime Strategy. At the time, Secretary of the Navy [John] Lehman was building toward the 600-ship Navy. We were still fighting the Soviet Union, and people were complaining about the five-year defense plan and the fact that our acquisition system couldn’t keep pace with the changes. So, this is a constant refrain from folks who want what they need quickly and want the acquisition system to adapt to whatever the new fight is.
The challenge with that, of course, is when you’re talking about putting a man or a woman in the loop—whether that’s in a fighter aircraft, a ship, or a submarine—then you have to be thoughtful about how quickly the acquisition process works. There are other tools and capabilities that may not have a person in the loop, and, these can allow you to be a little bit more expeditious in how the acquisition process responds.
So, do we need to reevaluate the acquisition process in light of the speed of change? Of course. We always have to do that. But we also have to be thoughtful about ensuring we don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater when it comes to processes that have served us well in terms of the safety of the men and women using these remarkable tools.
Captain Hamblet: The next question is about naval integration. How can the Navy’s big three “tribes”—surface warfare, submarines, aviation—make the most of the capabilities that Naval Special Warfare brings to the fight now?
Vice Admiral Daly: I would add that there’s a whole generation of surface, aviation, and submarine officers who have had very limited exposure to NSW because of the direction in the tasking and demands on NSW in the past 20 years. So, part of it is, as we move forward, is there an opportunity to do something different or better with the so-called conventional tribes?
Admiral McRaven: Having seen this sine wave a number of times over the years, it’s not something I’m overly concerned about. In 1977, I came into the SEAL teams, and at the time, we were embarked on amphibious ready groups and submarines. We were jumping out of naval aircraft. And so, to your point, Bill, there was a fair amount of integration between Naval Special Warfare and the conventional Navy.
The 1980s came along and the rise of terrorism around the world, including the Red Brigades and the Baader-Meinhof gang. Therefore, we had this mind shift about how Naval Special Warfare should be employed. We began to pull away from, a little bit, the conventional Navy, and that did not serve us well. And then the 1990s came along, with revolution in military affairs, and there was an understanding among the senior Naval Special Warfare leaders that we needed to get back with the Navy. So, we put SEALs on the guided missile submarines [SSGNs] and aircraft carriers. I spent a lot of time on amphibs. And then 9/11 happened, and we moved away again from the conventional Navy.
First and foremost, SEALs and special boat operators are naval officers and sailors, so our ability to reconnect with the Navy is always there when the time is necessary. It is always appropriate to be connected to the Navy, but as we look at major conflicts and today’s threats, we will need to have a closer relationship with the Navy. NSW understands its roots. I spent a lot of time on submarines and ships—amphibs, and carriers. I loved my time with the conventional Navy, and it was a highlight of my career.
Vice Admiral Daly: The CNO and Commandant of the Marine Corps are working intently on naval integration. The Commandant’s Planning Guidance looks at the Marine Corps as being on ships, at sea, and enabling naval—with a small “n”—objectives, and the ability of the fleet and the Fleet Marine Force to battle together for sea control. The Commandant really hits the Fleet Marine Force concept—which I hadn’t heard for quite a while—to fight together.
As they re-forge this blue-green team, there might be a way to rethink the role of NSW, too. Do you think there’s an opportunity for Naval Special Warfare as the Navy and Marines fight together?
Admiral McRaven: Well, of course, the first word in Naval Special Warfare is “naval,” and, I spent a lot of time on amphibs and with the Fleet Marine Force. I have tremendous respect for my surface warfare colleagues and the Marines I served with. I have not read [General Berger’s] Planning Guidance, but this is a bit cyclic. The Marines after 9/11, went ashore, for the most part, in places such as Kandahar and Iraq. They were ground Marines, infantry Marines, doing what infantry Marines do. Of course, they were supplemented where needed by the Fleet Marine Force. And now there’s a recognition that as Iraq and Afghanistan have wound down, there must be an important connection between the Navy and the Fleet Marine Force and Naval Special Warfare.
Our role has always been in support of the blue-green team. It’s an important role. If you’re going to do amphibious operations, however those might be characterized now—with AAAVs [Advanced Amphibious Assault Vehicles], V-22s, different means of assaulting the beach—you’re still going to need capabilities that maybe the Navy or the Marine Corps don’t have that can be supplemented by Naval Special Warfare. We have submersibles that can be of value when taking a look at the threats along the beach. We have very shallow-water mine capability. So, there are a lot of areas where Naval Special Warfare can be of benefit to the Navy-Marine Corps team. Again, this is “back to the future” to some degree. We’ll all have to get in the wardroom, in the goat locker, and in the troop bays, and figure out how to do this, but it won’t be hard to do. We’ve done it multiple times in my career, and we’re just coming back to it again.
Captain Hamblet: Sir, back to the topic of leadership, I wanted to ask you: What’s the most important advice you would give to a young sailor or a young officer today?
Admiral McRaven: The first thing I always tell young officers is when you come to a command, find the master chief or the gunny sergeant, sit down with them, and get the pulse of the command. The fact of the matter is, as an officer, it’s very important for you to listen first before you move out too quickly. Listen to the troops. Find out what they have to say. You can build on that. But at the end of the day, your job as an officer is to understand the mission and get the troops to do that mission. If it’s ever about you, if you think as an officer that the work you’re doing is about you, you’re probably not the leader that unit needs. The fact is, it’s about taking care of the troops, and taking care of the troops doesn’t mean giving them early liberty every Friday afternoon. Taking care of the troops means you set a high standard, you give them the responsibility and the tools they need to do the job, and then you hold them accountable.
Everybody wants to be part of a great organization. I don’t care if you’re flipping hamburgers at McDonald’s, you want to be the best hamburger flipper you can. In the military, people ask, “What is the best unit around?” Well, the best units are those that have high standards, that give the rank-and-file the resources to achieve those standards, and then hold them accountable when they don’t. It’s not rocket science. It’s not easy, but the fundamentals are there, and that’s what I would impart to any young officer or enlisted person coming.
Captain Hamblet: I read your book Make Your Bed. I’ve always been a big fan of making beds and making my kids make their beds. Aside from that book, what should young people in the Navy be reading today?
Admiral McRaven: Well, it’s important to read. I have an extensive library because I value the lessons that can be learned from antiquity to modern day. So, there are thousands of books I would offer. I’m a big believer in [Carl von] Clausewitz. I’ve read On War three or four times, line by line, so I understand the nature of Clausewitz. It’s important to understand the classics . . . Clausewitz and [Alfred] Mahan, [Giulio] Douhet, Liddell Hart, and Sun Tzu, and all of the classic thinkers. That’s an important base. But then you’ve got to build on that by reading books that have real experiences from real soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines, Coast Guardsmen, and intelligence professionals.
Then it’s important to understand leadership techniques. There are a lot of good books on leadership. One of the best is Stephen [M.R.] Covey’s The SPEED of Trust: The One Thing that Changes Everything. It talks about building trust, and the two components of trust. Invariably, there’s a personal component. If it’s your brother-in-law, do you trust your brother-in-law? The second thing is you have to deliver on your promises. Time and time again, whether you go into a wardroom or the goat locker, you’re going to build relationships with men and women, and that’s great . . . that’s the beginning of trust, when you have a personal relationship. But if you’re not able to deliver on the work that you promise, then after a while, people won’t trust you. I found as a commander, whether it was dealing with troops or dealing with higher authorities, people might say, “Hey, that McRaven, he’s a pretty decent guy.” But then the next question would be, “Yeah, but does he deliver?” And if the answer to the second question was no, then the trust factor’s not there.
Conversely, I would offer that if you deliver, but people don’t trust your personal integrity because they don’t have a personal trust in you, then that’s just as damaging. Sometimes you can deliver, but if you’re not a trustworthy person or a person who is honest and has integrity, then the trust factor is gone as well. So, you need those two components, and that comes out in Covey’s book, The SPEED of Trust.
Vice Admiral Daly: I’ve got one question that I didn’t plan on asking, but it seems a logical one here. You mentioned you’re a reader and you talked about the importance of reading. A big part of [the Naval Institute’s] mission statement is “daring to read, think, speak, and write.” As you alluded to earlier, things ebb and flow in the Navy. Right now, we see some hesitancy on the part of some to write. Part of that is because there was a policy not to “give away the playbook,”—and we understand that. But how do you feel about the culture of the Navy, its reliance on mission orders, and tolerating people who make decisions and write critically and providing them top cover? There are some who say we shouldn’t be comfortable writing about the profession in an open forum, and others who say that’s what made us great. I just wonder where you’re at on that point.
Admiral McRaven: I was always a big fan of the Naval Institute Proceedings. When I was in the Navy, every time Proceedings would come out, I’d grab a copy and read it. Maybe not the deep articles, but I always wanted to read the articles from the young sailors and Marines who had an issue with what we were doing. As long as they were professional in how they delivered their arguments, I would tell them, “Write all you want.” I didn’t agree with a lot of it, but I wanted to hear their concerns and ideas. I wanted to understand why they thought the Navy should go in one direction or the other. Bill, you asked me what’s the most important thing for a leader, and I said you’ve got to be able to listen. If we’re afraid, as leaders, to hear what the rank-and-file are saying, then we’re probably not very good leaders. You have to be prepared to listen to opposing points of view.
What we don’t need—and, frankly, I see it in some of the tabloid military papers—is people just venting. Unprofessional venting doesn’t achieve much. What I do think achieves a lot is having a professional magazine that addresses the issues of concern in the Navy and the Marine Corps, and I would offer the same thing for the other services. In fact, we should encourage our young officers and young enlisted personnel to write about what they are passionate about in a thoughtful, professional manner. Make your argument, make it a powerful argument, and then see if your argument wins the day.
Captain Hamblet: I couldn’t have answered that question any better as the editor-in-chief of Proceedings. That’s what we want people to do: write, come up with strong arguments, put them on paper. May the best ideas win, regardless of rank.
Admiral McRaven: The other thing I always loved, every year, were the essay contests. That is just seminal to the work Proceedings does. I knew a number of folks who wrote some remarkable articles. And I think that stems all the way back to Mahan as he wrote about naval power, power projection—the Navy loves this sense of naval strategy. We’ve always been strategists in a way. That is fundamental to our core, and when somebody can write about strategy in a thoughtful, professional way, it advances the naval service.
Vice Admiral Daly: Just as an aside, and I think it relates, each service, to a degree, embraces mission-level orders, but I think the naval service does to a greater degree by necessity. I always felt it was implicit in mission-level orders that occasionally you’re going to have to rein somebody in, which means you have to tolerate somebody not doing exactly what you wanted. But as a commander, if you were comfortable with that, your people could get a lot done.
Admiral McRaven: I agree with you, Pete. And I will tell you I think my naval upbringing before 9/11 served me very well post-9/11. Having spent a lot of time on ships and watching the latitude, responsibility, and accountability the Navy had given its commanding officers, I knew from day one after 9/11 that I was accountable. Leaders are accountable for everything they command. If people made mistakes on my watch, I knew I was responsible. You can find all the reasons you want to distance yourself from a bad decision, but, invariably, that bad decision on the part of one of the troops can be traced back to the commander.
If you haven’t set the right conditions, then you’re probably going to get a bad decision somewhere down the line. Now, does that mean that you use draconian methods to address that bad decision? No. To your point, we’re given mission orders. We’re given responsibility. Hopefully, you carry that out in a manner that is consistent with what the Navy and the nation needs. If you do that, then you will find people moving out a lot faster and in a way that is much more conducive to winning the fight than if you constrain them every step of the way.
Captain Hamblet: Just one last question, Admiral. When you’re talking to current SEAL leaders, as I’m sure you do from time to time, we’ve been trying for the last couple years to recruit young SEALs to write for Proceedings . . .
Admiral McRaven: Oh, good.
Captain Hamblet: . . . and it’s something that I’ve failed at so far, and I keep looking at different ways to go at the problem. I appreciate what you just said about Proceedings. Please let SEALs know they’re pushing on an open door if they want to write about any topic—from leadership to tactics to grand strategy to how NSW can help the Navy in great power competition. We would love to see more SEAL and NSW authors in our pages.
Admiral McRaven: Well, Bill, I’ll take the opportunity when I do this leadership seminar for the postgraduate school, because I’ll be interviewed by three or four SEALs. I think the hard part since 9/11, of course, is the community has just been overwhelmed by deployments. Frankly, they have not had enough time to sit back and think about important issues. I hope that is letting up a bit, as evident by the fact that there are a lot of SEALs at the Naval Postgraduate School now. I’m a big supporter of NPS. So, I’ll pass along that message.
Vice Admiral Daly: Sir, thanks again for your help and your time. I’m not going to thank you for your service because it’s a bit trite, but we do appreciate everything you stand for. We truly appreciate hearing from you. So, thank you again. We wish you and your family health and safety until COVID-19 is wiped out.
Admiral McRaven: All right, guys. My pleasure. Take care. Thanks a lot.
[End of interview]
(A few days after this interview, Admiral McRaven recorded his roundtable interview with students at the Naval Postgraduate School.)