Admiral William McRaven on Leadership

Friday, August 21, 2020 - Admiral William McRaven is a former Navy SEAL and four-star admiral who served as the 9th Commander of the US Special Operations Command. He discusses leadership traits that help solve problems and inspire teamwork.

Listen Now!

Listen wherever you get your podcasts.

Admiral William McRaven is a retired United States Navy SEAL and four-star admiral who last served as the ninth commander of the United States Special Operations Command.
Admiral William McRaven is a retired United States Navy SEAL and four-star admiral who last served as the ninth commander of the United States Special Operations Command.

Admiral William McRaven is a retired United States Navy SEAL and four-star admiral who last served as the ninth commander of the United States Special Operations Command. Following that, he was the chancellor of The University of Texas System from 2015 to 2018. Today, he will discuss leadership in a time of great crisis and American national security concerns for the future.

Admiral McRaven believes that leadership in a time of crisis is no different than in calmer times: You need to set a goal, and you need to motivate those below you to accomplish that goal. But Admiral McRaven is adamant that leadership is also about responsibility and accountability. A good leader should take responsibility for all decisions made by those below them. Unfortunately, that kind of leadership is often in short supply in our politics today.

Go to NoLabels.org to learn more about how we are bringing together a bipartisan group of public and private leaders working to solve America’s toughest problems.

In this Episode

Click the links to jump to a topic that interests you.

Opening Remarks

Admiral McRaven:
First, I appreciate the opportunity to talk to No Labels and the great work that you all are doing. Obviously the idea of bipartisanship is probably more important today than ever before. Certainly in my lifetime. As Admiral Blair mentioned, I've been asked to talk a little bit about leadership in the age of COVID and candidly, when I looked at the list of attendees today, I'm not really sure what I can tell most of you that you don't already know about leadership. You have all led groups, both small and large. You understand the value of leadership.

I guess the first thing I'd tell you is your leadership in the age of COVID, is no different than that leadership in any age, in any crisis that you might be involved in. I had an opportunity earlier today to talk to about 60 freshmen coming into the Oklahoma school system. It was a discussion on leadership and I was quick to point out that look, the concept of leadership is a simple one. I mean, you as the leader, you have a mission and you've got to get the people that work for you to accomplish that mission. That's it. It's not overly complex when you think about it. You have a task to do. You've got to be able to inspire. You have to be able to motivate.

You have to be able to manage the people that work for you in order to accomplish the mission. I'm sure the harder the mission, frankly, the better leaders you need. My time in the Navy as Admiral Blair knows, certainly the last 20 years of my service in the military was spent in the joint special operation's arena of which 75 to 80% of the force is army. So as a Naval officer, you have to learn as much about the army as you can, because it's the men and women that work for you. It's true of the entire military, but the army really focuses on what they refer to as general order number one. General order number one. General order number one essentially says, I will be in charge of my posts.

I will take care of my posts and everything within view. I will take care of my posts and everything within view. Of course, most people associate that with a sentry. A guard on duty and their responsibility is to take care of their posts and everything that might affect them manning their posts. But the idea of general order number one is frankly, a lot broader than that. It is a lot more philosophical if you will, than that. It is about your responsibility as a leader. The implication is, if you're in charge, you're in charge of everything you're on. In terms of, certainly as we think about it in the Navy, the commanding officer of a ship, or if you're battalion commander, or if you're a mayor, a governor, a president, whatever.

When you are in charge, you are responsible for everything at your post and things within your view. A couple of years ago we had some terrible tragedies in the Navy. The USS McCain and the USS Fitzgerald had collisions at sea. I found it interesting listening to the narrative, the public narrative coming from a lot of the civilians who didn't have an appreciation for how the Navy viewed the situation. If you may recall when the collisions happened at sea, in both cases, the commanding officers of the ship were actually in their state room and asleep at the time. So there was this discussion that I watched, again in the media and on some social posts about, well, I don't understand why is the Navy holding the commanding officer responsible?

The young officer on the bridge at the time never woke him up. They never came and woke up the commanding officer and said, "Sir, we need you on the bridge." So why is the Navy holding the commanding officer responsible? Of course, the way the military and the Navy from my standpoint views this is, hey, I'm sorry, you don't understand. For some reason that young officer did not come and wake up the commanding officer. So why? The commanding officer is responsible. The commanding officer must have created a culture or a climate where that young officer on the bridge was afraid to wake up the commanding officer at two o'clock in the morning.

Or that young officer on the bridge failed to follow the night orders. So every captain leaves night orders on the bridge for the officer of the deck and the night orders invariably say, if a ship was within 15,000 yards and you have a decreasing bearing, then you need to wake up the commanding officer. None of that happened. So at the end of the day, the commanding officer was responsible because either one, they didn't create the climate or two, they didn't have good order and discipline within the crew. In any case, the commanding officer is ultimately responsible for every single thing that happens on that ship.

Now, in the case of the Fitzgerald and McCain, the Navy not only held the commanding officer responsible, they held the next flag officer in the chain of command and the next flag officer in the chain of command and in an unprecedented move, they held the fleet commander, a three star Admiral responsible as well. Frankly, it was the right message to send to the fleet writ large. You're responsible for your ship. If you can't create a climate where the people feel appropriate to come to you in a time of crisis, then you're obviously not the leader we need. So this idea of general order number one is really important.

The other thing that the Navy and the military instill in you, is that as the person in charge, you own the problem. You own the problem. Your job is not to deflect things when things aren't going well. We tend to see in today's environment, this tendency to immediately deflect ownership of the problem. I will tell you in my time as the chancellor of the University of Texas, I was frustrated at times when a number of my presidents, so as the chancellor, I had 14 institutions that reported to me. It's a large organization. There were 230,000 kids, students going to school. 100,000 employees. Obviously like any large organization, bad things happen on a routine basis.

A lot of times when something egregious would happen, I would find that the blame had been shifted to the lower level. Well, the reason bad things happened was because the chair of the department didn't handle it well. Or the Dean didn't handle it well. Or the provost didn't handle it well. Of course my approach was always to go to the president of the university and say, "Now, this is your problem. You have an obligation to go solve that problem. Don't deflect the blame, fix it." Several years ago, probably 10 years ago now I guess, out in the Gulf of Mexico, if you recall the Deepwater Horizon oil rig blew up and about four people I think were killed on the rig, but it leaked oil throughout the entire Gulf of Mexico.

For weeks on end, you saw these pictures of mom and pop stores that were decimated by oil on the beach. You saw pictures of birds were covered in oil. Fishing fleets couldn't go out because the oil was there. Of course, this crisis went on for weeks and weeks and British Petroleum was trying to manage it. But about week number three, a reporter stuck a microphone in front of the CEO of British Petroleum who had been kind of grappling with this problem from London. The reporter turned to the CEO and the CEO, he said, "Well this has been a tough couple of weeks for you." He goes, "I just want to get back to my life. I just want to get back to my life."

Needless to say that CEO did not last too long. CEO had no comprehension of all of the lives that have been affected by this disaster. Not only that, the CEO, and I'll talk about it here in a minute, didn't move to the point of the problem. He stayed in London and was allowing the blame and the problems to be worked and deflected at the lower level. A couple of years later, I was talking to a large group of bankers and before I went to talk about 600 folks from this large banking organization. Before I had gone to see them, I pulled up their home page and on their home page, a cookie, a banner would pop up.

The banner was from this guy, Nathan and somehow it was popping up on their home page. Nathan was just eviscerating this banking organization. He said, "Nobody returns my calls. The local people don't do this." Just line after line after line. I kept refreshing the home page, but it didn't matter, somehow Nathan's little cookie would pop up. So I posed to all of the executives that were there. The CEO of this international bank happened to be in the audience as well. I said, "So here's the situation. What are you going to do about it? What would you do about Nathan's post here?"

People looking around the room and finally one guy got up the courage and he raised his hand and he said, "Well, we'll take down the post." I dropped my head and I was looking around and they were all nodding. "Well, yeah, we'll take down the post." I said, "No. Let me tell you what I would do and I think most leaders would do. I would find out who Nathan is. If I were the CEO, I would call Nathan and say, "Nathan, I'm the CEO of this multinational bank. What can I do to fix your problem?" Of course, they all said, "Why would we take the time to do that?" "Because you have a responsibility as a leader to fix those problems."

I don't care if they are the Nathan problems or they're multiple minor problems on the line. You have to deal with them. Sometimes people don't want to do that. I said, "Oh, by the way, if you take care of Nathan's problems, that will spread like wildfire among your other customers, that the CEO took the time to call and deal with a single customer's problems." Let me talk about moving to the point of the problem. Once again, I think every leader understands, you've got to move to the point of the problem. I'm watching this great documentary on the History channel about Grant. You see Grant through a course before he becomes the General Grant we know.

I mean, it's just a disaster. He's an alcoholic. He fails at every business he's involved in. Of course finally as the Civil war begins to break out and he takes charge of a small army and then begins to build his reputation. But what you find every time with Grant that makes him so unique, he's a great horseman and Grant moves to where the problem is. So every single battle he fights, you find Grant is on the front lines. He's viewing the problem. He's seeing what's happening. He's not just listening to couriers reporting what's happening, he's moving to the point so that with his gravitas, with his experience, he can help solve the problems. Napoleon did the same thing.

I love the story about Patton. George Patton used to always drive a Jeep to the front lines. He would always drive to the front lines, but he would never drive back. He would always take a helicopter or an airplane back because he never wanted the troops to see him retreating from the front lines. He always wanted them to know he was up front where the action is. That's where the leaders need to be. Finally, I was telling these young folks earlier today that, as a leader you can't have a bad day. Again, all of you understand the importance of this. I was also on another Zoom with a head coach from a very prominent college football team talking about the same sort of thing.

But leaders can't have a bad day. I mean, you're going to have bad days. But if you walk in front of the troops, if you walk in front of the employees and your shoulders are slumped, or your head's held down and you're moping about something, that spreads like wildfire. You better make damn sure when you step in front of the troops, your chin is held high, your shoulders are back. You've got a plan on how you're going to get out of this crisis. You make sure that you provide them the energy they need to achieve the mission. Because once again, that is really your job. When I think of the attributes I've seen in great leaders, the first one that comes to mind is, you got to listen.

You have to listen to the experts. You have to listen to the experience. You also have to listen to the naysayers. When I first arrived in Iraq in 2003, I was a one star Admiral. I had just pinned a one star Admiral. I arrive in Baghdad and the first night I arrive, I get in about 11 o'clock at night, we've got a mission going on. The guy I relieved, literally gets on the plane, the C-130 that brought me in. We kind of high five. He hops on and leaves. Next thing you know, I'm in command of the special operations troops in Iraq. The first night we've got this mission and the Delta Force commander and the helicopter commander come to me and they say, "Hey sir, we got this mission pretty straightforward."

I'm thinking we're good. My first night on the ground, this is good to hear. "It's pretty straightforward. We're going to send two helicopters in. We've got a bad guy out in the desert. Going to send two helicopters in. The Delta operators will surround the compound. I will ask the guy to come out. If not, we don't think there's going to be a lot of resistance. It'll all be good." They wanted my approval. I said, "Yeah, sure. You bet." About 30 minutes later, they come back and they say, "Hey, sir, everything's changed." So it turns out there's a lot more bad guys on the target.

Now we're going to bring in five helicopters, we've got 50 Rangers. We've got Delta Force operators, probably going to get in a fire fight. I was like, "Okay, Whoa, boys, time out." I pushed anybody aside. I brought the experts into my office and I said, "Explain to me exactly what you're going to do. I need to understand the risk. I need to find out whether you're confident and comfortable in doing this. If you tell me you are, I'm going to trust you on that." Because they were significant, had significant combat experience. Make a long story short, they convinced me that it was good op. They did the op. Everything turned out well. It was about, again, listening to the experts.

You've got to be able to communicate. You got to be able to communicate your plan at all times. You've got to be able to manage the resources. We think about leaders leading, but leadership is also about management. In 2007, I took nine NATO generals to Afghanistan with me. I was stationed in Europe at the time. Got on the plane. We took nine NATO generals to Europe and I had this huge dog and pony show set up with them. We went and visited with Dan McNeil, who was the four star. We traveled all around Afghanistan. We had C-130's waiting. We had convoys waiting. We were just rolling like this and none of them seemed impressed.

I was a little surprised by that. I thought, my gosh, we are showing them the might of the American military. The precision of the American military and yet they don't seem impressed. Finally, on my last day there, we were in Bagram Afghanistan and we had broken for lunch. It was February. We'd broken for lunch and we're in this kind of makeshift chow hall, mess hall. I noticed that all the generals are standing around a table and they're all talking to each other. I came over and I said, "What's going on boys?" One of them said, "This is why you are the greatest military in the world." He pointed at the strawberries. He said, "You have strawberries in Afghanistan in February."

It was not lost on me. The fact of the matter is, we are the greatest military in the world. Not just because we have the greatest soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines, but because we can manage the military. We can manage the logistics. Any leader who thinks that leading is just about inspiring, just about messaging, just about listening, doesn't understand that leading is also about managing. A lot of the management happens to be logistics. Of course, it's always about hard work. Let me jump real quickly, because I don't want to take up too much time here and get specifically into COVID. I think anytime you see a crisis, I can tell you I think of it in a number of ways.

First, you have to define the problem. You've got to be able to develop a strategy. You have to be able to build a plan. Then again, you have to kind of command the action. So define the problem, develop the strategy, build a plan and command the action. I mean, we obviously know what the problem is. It is a pandemic. It is a virus that moves from person to person. We think about the strategy and you can look at two different strategies. You can look at a centralized approach to managing it or a federated approach. You can look at, well, maybe we'll take the herd immunity or you can starve the virus and try to isolate it until it dies. Those are the strategies.

Then you have to build the plans. You have to pick one of those I think, you've got to build a plan. You have to have kind of an aspirational plan. This is the best case scenario. You have to plan that is based on the facts of the day. But then you damn well better have the worst case scenario. Too often, people don't want to plan for the worst case scenario because it frightens them. Because they can't come up with answers in the worst case scenario. But you have to have a plan for the worst case scenario so that when all of a sudden in the fall, we can't play football and basketball and the schools don't open and the economy begins to tank and all the bad things that we think could possibly happen.

Now, what are we going to do? Are we going to wait until that happens before we take action? Or are we going to have a plan right now that makes these assumptions and has a way of working our way through the worst case scenario? Finally, I would offer any time you're in a situation like this, you have to command. We call the president in this case, the commander in chief, not the administrator in chief, but the commander in chief. There's a recognition that when you command, again you have to do more than just kind of tell people. When I think about it from a military standpoint, we command from a command center. When I was running the Joint Special Operations Command, I had a huge command center.

It had 50 flat panel displays. I was able to talk to all of my folks around the world. I was able to see everything that was happening from predators and drones, the guys on the ground. It was something out of a movie. I lived it every single day. I don't know, but I would hope that as we are trying to manage and command in this pandemic, that somewhere there is a command center where the head of the task force, the president, somebody can come in. Talk to every governor they need to. Have the information available to them. Be able to pull it together. Be able to develop a plan. Manage that plan and command the action. With that, I'll offer one more thing.

Every leader knows at the end of the day, nothing, nothing trumps hard work. To get through any crisis, you just have to work your ass off. That's all there is to it. I mean, you have to work your ass off. In combat, we're working 18, 20 hours a day. You're exhausted, but you find a way to work through it because it is a noble mission. It is an honorable mission. It is an important mission. If you don't work hard to get through it, then you may not accomplish that task and that makes you a bad leader.

Diversity and the Armed Forces

Danny:
As you said at the beginning, leadership is simple, but it's damn difficult. A lot of people can talk about it. Not that many people can actually do it. You're certainly in the category of those who could do it. Some questions have come in over chat. A lot of them about sort of geopolitical questions. What about Russia? What about China? We can get to them. But I'd like to take the host prerogative and start with one question. The social issue gripping the country these days. Black Lives Matter, inequality, the unfinished business of race relations in this country.

I don't know about you, but I'd always been sort of proud of the Armed Forces as one of the real leaders in this area. We've been working hard on it for many years. We recognized long ago that we hadn't done a very good job. Things like promotions and discipline records and all of those things we paid attention to and thought we'd made great progress. But we really aren't honest about it. We haven't gone as far as we would like to. I know that the Navy Officer Corps, for example is not as diverse as the enlisted ranks in the Navy. I know Special Forces has struggled for years trying to get minority participation up to what it is in the force as a whole. In the country as a whole.

We have the whole business of these not only basis in the South named for Confederate generals. The ones that General Grant, whom you mentioned defeated. But things like the Naval Academy with Buchanan House, where our superintendent has led for years. They all just sort of walked by and there's this guy who plundered Union Shipping for years and years and we named it after him. So I think we do have a ways to go in the Armed Forces. I wonder if you might, I know you've been concerned with this, living it for years. As have I and had some ideas on it. You might talk to us a little bit about what the Armed Forces need to do in order to improve in this area further.

Admiral McRaven:
Well, again, when you look at the history of the American military, we had some to your point, Danny, we had some tough times. We were not very good at it. You think back, I think the first Black officer we had was in the early 1900s, but candidly they were segregated. We didn't integrate the military until Harry Truman signed into law, I think 1948. Then of course after 1948, you have the Jim Crow laws. Then of course comes to the '60s and the Civil rights movement began to really, I think really ignites to this understanding that we needed to do better. I think it was in 1962 when Kennedy kind of first used the word affirmative action.

But I know the first time I had a chance to see it, was on a promotion board and Admiral Blair you're well aware of how these go. But my first promotion boards were in the late '80s and the early '90s and then into the 2000s. But in the '80s and the '90s, when you sat on a promotion board and for the larger audience, you generally have about 11 to 13 senior officers on a promotion board. You review all the records. But affirmative action, because we had not done a good job of building the minority bench, what we said was, we have a quota. We have a quota of minorities and a quota of women that we are going to promote.

The records would come in and they'd be stamped minority or female and you reviewed those records and we began to build the bench. Now, candidly, there was some concern in how we did that, because we weren't always getting the best people for the job. But an interesting thing happened. As we began to build the bench over decades, we finally got to the point where the bench was so deep and the talent was so good, that we didn't have to screen the records for minorities and females anymore. That they stood really on their own merit as they always should have. This was a fundamental transition in the way the military looked at certainly officer records.

I have been blessed to work for some great minority leaders in my time. But we still have a long way to go. The great thing about the military, and I can tell you from my experience in the special operations community, we are a very reflective organization. When you go on a mission in special operations, and I know it's no different for the aviators or the surface warfare or the submariners. When you go on a mission, a training mission or real-world mission, when that mission is over, you have a post-operation report. I can tell you in combat, it is a very visceral emotional action for all the kids that are part of it. Your rank is immaterial. Whether you are the Admiral or a Private.

When you come into the post operation report, everybody gets an opportunity to say something. Everybody is expected to say something. You're going to point out the weaknesses in the plan. You're going to point out how the leaders didn't lead. You're going to point out how the Sergeants didn't do their job, because you want to improve because the next time you go out, somebody's going to die if you don't fix that problem. So the military has learned long, long ago that you have to reflect on how you do things. So I think our advantage here is that, we have a culture of reflection. So we still have a long way to go to your point Admiral.

But I am confident that we are going to kind of continue to reflect. Continue to make changes and continue to improve. Somebody asked me the other day about CQ Brown, the new chief of staff of the air force. They said, "Well, isn't this great that you now have an African American chief of staff of the air force?" I kind of had to laugh. I said, "Look, we didn't pick CQ Brown because he was African American. We picked him because he was the best man or the best person for the job." That's why we picked CQ Brown. He happened to be African American. I mean, we have this remarkable talent. We need to continue to invest in it. We need to continue to improve.

Managing global financial markets and foreign policy

Mack McLarty:
Admiral, great to be with you. My two questions really involved in what I consider the two significant challenges and you talked about leadership. One is, as we work our way through this unprecedented period, we've got a lot of scarring in the economy. We've obviously have spent a lot of money, I think, mostly justifiably so. How do we come out of that and regain our fiscal responsibility? That concerns me deeply as a business person and having worked in government. Secondly, from an international standpoint, I think the other major issue, and there's a lot of them out there. You and Danny and everyone on the call knows is a US, China relationship. That goes to security as well as economics. So if you would, I just really would be so interested in your views on both of those two kind of twin pillars of challenges.

Admiral McRaven:
Thanks Mack. Let me start with a little bit more fundamental issue. America needs to lead in the world. We can not come back behind our borders and expect that our allies or anyone else is going to respect us. So the first thing we have to understand is, the world today is incredibly connected. You have to build alliances. I don't fault President Trump for telling NATO, "Look, you've got to step up and provide 2% of your GDP in order to support the NATO." I got that. But the fact of the matter is NATO is one of the most important alliances we have. We have alliances in Asia. We have alliances in Africa.

If we are going to lead, we need to strengthen those alliances every chance we can. We need to recognize that the small countries have sometimes as much to offer as the large countries. But all those countries are looking for American leadership. They don't necessarily, as you know Mack, they don't necessarily like American policy, but they love American values. They believe at the end of the day that we are the good guys. For all of the problems we may have, they believe that we will come to the rescue if things really get bad. But if they no longer have any faith in us, then they will look to China. They will look to Russia.

They will look to establishing alliances that don't include the United States because we haven't been of value. I teach a graduate course at the LBJ school here. I always tell my students and I think a lot of them are kind of jaded. I said, "Look, there is a value proposition in being good." Sometimes we forget that goodness has a value proposition. If people believe you to be good, they are going to want you as part of their alliance. If they believe you to be good and not corrupt, you will have better trade deals. There is a lot out there, a lot of value to being good. But if everything we do is self serving.

If we believe that all we're going to have is this kind of contractual obligation with whoever we're dealing with, then at the end of the day, we're not the America that rebuilt Europe. We're not the America that helped rebuild Japan. We're not the America that supported South Korea. We're no longer that America and that will affect everything in the world. Our economy, our military, our standing on the world stage, everything. So I think we've got to get that right first. As far as China goes, I don't see China as a military threat. I recognize when we look at the South China sea and how the Chinese are building out on the Spratly Islands and the work they're doing down there, I think we can certainly see that they are flexing their muscles.

As I told folks, while I'm not overly concerned in terms of a one-on-one fight, our military is much more sophisticated, much more technologically advanced. What China has of course is numbers and quantity has a quality all its own. So while we think about the American military, our 1.3 million folks, we are spread around the world. Whereas the Chinese military really is focused in the waters around China. So I do worry about that. I think our biggest issue with China of course is, they are moving ahead pretty quickly in the terms of AI and machine learning. They continue to steal our intellectual property. I saw that firsthand from my time as the chancellor.

So we've got to be able to address those issues. But at the end of the day, I think with China, if we could lead again in the world, then the countries that are now resorting to reaching out to China, would reach back out to the United States. I think as far as our fiscal situation goes, this gets back to the next leader whoever that might be, is going to have to look the American people in the eye and say, you know what, this is going to be hard. So buckle up because the next 10 years is going to be rough if we expect to bring our debt down. If we expect to maintain the power of our economy in the future. I've talked to world-class economists who sometimes say that debt doesn't matter. Okay, but if your debt just to be trillions and trillions and trillions of dollars and your balance sheet is so out of whack, that your GDP can't keep up with your debt. I think that's a problem. If you're not leading in the world, it really becomes a problem.

The role of technology and leadership

George Bailey:
Thank you, Admiral. My question is this, the principles of leadership that you spoke about are absolutely great. My question is about technology. It seems like the world works differently today. The way people communicate. The way changes happen. The way things disseminate quickly or not. Do you have any comments about how technology, the use of technology and there's all the different dimensions of it. How it changes the role of a leader and what a leader does?

Admiral McRaven:
That's a great question. One, I would offer to you that a good leader has to understand how to use the technology. So back to the point we were making about the command center. In 2003, when Stan McChrystal who had led JSOC before I got there, and I was his deputy for three years. When he came to the Joint Special Operations Command, we could barely conduct a video teleconference. We didn't have the bandwidth. We didn't have the infrastructure. We got more investment than any other unit in the entire military and we could not conduct a routine video teleconference. So we eventually invested a lot of money, built our infrastructure, expanded the bandwidth because Stan said, "This is how I'm going to command."

We have a distributed force around the world, but the importance of leadership and back to Grant being on his horse. Well, Stan couldn't be on his horse in Yemen, in Somalia, in North Africa, Iraq and Afghanistan simultaneously. But he could certainly use the video to talk to the men and women that were on the point of the spear. We did that. Again, when I relieve Stan, I did the same thing. I conducted six video teleconferences a day. A day, just in order to manage and lead the force. Now, I want to put that in perspective. Because, yes you have to learn how to manage. Yes, the technology a lot of times is about your visible presence. It's the old JFK versus Richard Nixon on television.

It's about FDR using the radio. You have to understand that. But let me tell you the nature of war has not fundamentally changed in 10,000 years. When we were in Afghanistan, my forces which were the best equipped forces in the world, which everywhere we went, we had drones overhead. We had a combat air patrol. We had artillery on call. We had helicopters on call. We routinely got our ass kicked by Taliban with AK 47s and barefoot. So this is the nature of warfare. It is always going to be about mano a mano. When you look at the men that received the medal of honor from Iraq and Vietnam, it wasn't from flying a drone at Creech Airforce base.

Many of these guys were in hand to hand combat. So some things about warfare will never change. I think the leadership piece, while the medium may be different, you may have to communicate this a way. The media may be different. The fundamentals of leadership don't change. You've got to share the hardship's with the troop. I went out on missions every other week with the guys. Not because I needed to see what they were doing, but they needed to understand that their boss was prepared to share the hardships and the dangers of being in combat. If I didn't do that, if my professional distance was so far apart that all I was doing was sitting in my office drinking coffee and telling them what to do. You can't lead that way, even though the technology might allow you to do that.

Outcomes in Afghanistan

Stanley Ruskin:
What does the best possible outcome look like to you in Afghanistan?

Bill Galston:
Admiral McRaven, I will never forget the White House correspondence dinner, watching President Obama perform a very funny comedy routine. Never imagining that while he was doing that, you were getting Osama Bin Ladin and the whole country is in your debt. Here's my question, which won't be quite as friendly. You mentioned that the US military brought strawberries to Afghanistan. Unfortunately it hasn't brought victory to Afghanistan. Or to define an acceptable alternative for Afghanistan, short of victory, and then mobilize the resources needed to attain that alternative objective. I always thought that leadership meant coordinating means and ends with a little bit reserve against contingencies. So in your judgment, what has gone wrong?

Admiral McRaven:
Let me take your question first, because I think it will dovetail into the previous question. So first you're right. Obviously Afghanistan has not gone well at all. I mean, this will be a blight I think, on American foreign policy. I can't say whether it will be a blight writ large on the military. But it does get back to setting the expectations on day one. Again, the military works for the civilian leaders. So back to the strategy. I talked about in a crisis, you have to define the problem. So what was the problem in Afghanistan? The problem was Al Qaeda had a safe haven. That was kind of the problem.

Well, let me tell you that problem all of a sudden became, we're going to rid Afghanistan of Taliban and oh, by the way we're going to install a new government. So we had Mission Creek from, I don't know if it was day one, but by the time I got there, we were already in Mission Creek. So we didn't define the problem well. Then the strategy, again the strategy I would offer, was probably flawed as well. Not that it wasn't well-meaning. It was well-meaning. We need to rid Afghanistan of Al Qaeda and Al Qaeda safe havens. But then again, when you take a look at that, if you'd have thought about that for a minute, we would have realized that, well, Al Qaeda could have had a safe haven in Pakistan.

They could have a safe haven in Yemen. They could have a safe haven in Somalia. Why do we just have to rid Al-Qaeda safe havens in Afghanistan? So there were a number of, I think what turned out to be fatal flaws, if you will, from the very beginning. We didn't do a good job of defining the problem. We probably didn't have the right strategy. At one point in time, I was in the oval office and having a very, very good and thoughtful conversation with a president. At one point in time, as the commander of Afghanistan was trying to convince the president that we just needed to stay there one more year.

He said, "General", he said, "I've been in this job for six years now and every year the military has come to me and said, "I just need one more year." So to your point, we were always kind of fighting one year at a time. Least certainly from the beginning. I don't think we had, it's not that we didn't. We had an appreciation for the difficulty of Afghanistan. Every military leader. Denny Blair said it right up front. Let me tell you, the Generals I knew and the Admirals and frankly, the Colonels and the Sergeants, they had all read the literature on Afghanistan. They knew what had happened to the Soviets. We knew we didn't want to get stuck in that quagmire, but we did.

I don't have an answer for you. I can't tell you why we got to where we are, other than we don't like to lose. We don't like to lose. We don't want to leave any loose ends. Sometimes that can be the worst decision you make. You go back to Richard Nixon pulling out of Vietnam. I remember as a kid this happening and it was like, oh my God. Oh my God, we've been defeated. We've lost in Vietnam. Of course today, the Vietnamese are one of our bigger trading partners in Asia. So the point is, sometimes as a leader, you have to make the hard call and say, it didn't work out. I will accept the blame for that or I will accept the responsibility for that, but we're going to move on. That's tough.

That's really, really tough. So I can't fault any president for the decisions they've made. Now getting on to the next question. Where do I think we go from here? I have said for a couple of years now, that whatever paper we write the treaty with the Taliban on, won't be worth anything. The fact of the matter is, the Taliban as soon as we leave, the Taliban probably within six months will take back over again. They will do what they did prior to our arrival and tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of women will be at risk because of the way the Taliban rule. I think that will be disastrous. So I am not in favor of a Taliban peace treaty.

But the end game here I would offer is, we have a footprint that we need to stay in Afghanistan with a small, special operations footprint that can in fact keep the bad guys heads down long enough for the central government to begin to establish relationships. You've got to have a tie between the central government, the provincial government, the district government and the villages. The Afghans have been trying to do this for a while. They're making some progress. Their military is getting marginally better. But I think if we leave altogether, if we leave altogether, we are putting at risk hundreds of thousands of Afghan lives. Most of them women. There is no good way out of this. That's not a good answer Bill, but I'm just trying to be straight up with you.

What are the challenges of civilian military relations?

Doug Scribner:
Admiral, thank you and Admiral McRaven, thank you for your extraordinary service to our country in so many different ways. The Admiral sort of teed it up. A number of events over the last four years, but even longer that has sort of raised the issue of civilian military relations, whether it's the pardon of Chief Gallagher or the treatment of Colonel Vindman or the retired flag officers who gotten into very political and partisan positions and taking positions publicly and all the rest. Just your sense of where we are. What are the challenges of the civilian military relations?

Admiral McRaven:
it's a great question and obviously these have been challenging times. I'm often criticized for having spoken out. What I tell people, because there is this kind of unwritten rule that if you're a retired senior officer, you don't question, you don't speak out against the commander in chief. I think that is a good unwritten rule. I have told folks, "Look, when I get criticized for speaking out against the president", I've said, "That fair criticism." I'm okay with that. If somebody comes back to me and says, "Hey, you shouldn't be doing that." "Okay, you're right." I accept that criticism.

But I also have to wake up in the morning, look myself in the mirror and ask myself whether or not I'm personally I'm doing the right thing. So I'm okay with accepting that criticism. Now, I think the broader issue here, when we start talking about civil military relationships. The expectation, and I worked for a whole lot of presidents most closely of course. For Bush 43 and for President Obama. In both cases, I didn't agree with either man on a whole lot of issues. Particularly when I was in uniform. But I will tell you that my belief was that both men were men of integrity trying to do the right thing. They didn't always get it right. But I felt they were trying to do the right thing.

That they were honest. That they were trustworthy. The sort of fundamental values that you would expect from a good leader. When that happens, irrespective of some of their bad decisions, you can continue to follow them in a way that I think is meaningful if your cause is again, honorable and noble, which ours was. My concern of late is that I have felt that again, the president has intervened on a number of issues that didn't seem appropriate to me. I first spoke out when he called the press the enemy of the American people. I was the chancellor of the University of Texas at the time. That night I was going to speak at the School of Journalism of which I am a journalist major.

So I knew it was going to catch flack. But I was very clear. I said, "Look, I think when the president calls the media the enemy of the American people, that this is the greatest threat to democracy in my lifetime." Those were the words I used. People said, "But that's hyperbolic. Why would you use words like that?" Because I felt it was the greatest threat to Democracy. This is the First Amendment. This is the freedom of speech, the freedom of expression, the freedom to assemble. This to me, was something that the president who swore the same oath I did, to support and defend the Constitution of the United States. That was something I just couldn't let pass.

Now I will tell you, here in the state of Texas, I took a lot of flack for that. My board of regions were none too happy that I spoke out against the president. I was quick to point out, "Look, I have fought the enemy of the American people and it isn't the media." I've been raked over the coals by the media, but you still have to have a free and open press. So I'm kind of back to the broader issue though of civil military relations. I am comfortable with where we are. I know Mark Milley very, very well. He got caught up in this horrible photo op. But I'll tell you what Mark Milley did, which again is what I would expect a great leader to do.

Within 24 or 48 hours, Mark Milley spoke to, I think the soldiers at NDU and made a public apology. Back to, he owned the problem. I made a mistake. This was egregious. I should never have been involved in that and I apologize. That's what great leaders do. Mark Milley, and I don't know Mark Esper well, but I have had a few conversations with him. Again, I think he is a decent person that will do the best he can. So I'm confident that we'll get through these rough patches. If President Trump is reelected, the military will always do the best it can to be apolitical when they are in uniform. Can't guarantee that out of uniform, but certainly when they're in uniform, they would, they should. If they don't, then they ought to be held responsible and accountable for whatever they speak while in uniform.

What will universities look like in 3 years?

Glenn:
Thank you, Admiral for your service. I want to go to the University of Texas and your experience there. Very short question. From your perspective, looking across the nation at universities and how they are handling COVID, what will the university system broadly speaking, look like in three years? Thank you for being here today.

Admiral McRaven:
thanks very much. I actually don't think it will fundamentally change much in three years. Again, I'm having to teach here, come August. We're going to do it for the most part online. There may be some very small personal engagement. But the first opportunity we get when there's a vaccine or a therapeutic or people can kind of get back to normality, I guarantee you, the students are going to want to come back on campus. They are going to want to be involved with every teacher they can. Because the personal experience is what makes university life so valuable. It isn't the online experience, as good as that might be. It is the personal experience. I think in three years my guess is we won't see a fundamental difference in how universities do business pre-COVID.

Sign Off with Bill Galston

Bill Galston:
Well Admiral McRaven, I taught for more than a decade at the University of Texas at Austin. All I can say is, I sure wish the heck that you had been the chancellor when I was there. Life would have been a lot better for all of us. But that was a long time ago. Yeah, I think we are all listening to your comments about leadership and thinking about where we are now as a country. Military leadership is really hard. But in some ways it's easier than civilian political leadership. You have a hierarchy. You have a reasonably clear set of rules and disciplinary procedures for when the rules are broken. Political leadership is a lot messier.

As No Labels has insisted for a decade, rather than one person defining the objective, you frequently have to bring people with competing objectives together and come up with some synthesis that satisfies them all to some extent and leaves them dissatisfied to some extent. I think all of us wish that the kind of firm and effective leadership you're talking about could simply be transferred from the military sphere to the civilian sphere. I think we've learned through experience that that is not to be expected. But the other kinds of leadership that are as necessary as ever, and one is the ability to listen respectfully to other people.

To compromise as long as you're not being asked to compromise core principles. To work with other people whom you don't particularly like, but whose cooperation is essential, if the job is going to get done. That's what we're trying to do here at No Labels. I think we've all learned a lot from the past hour. We hope that you'll remain as a dialogue partner from time to time. Because I'm convinced that we can continue to learn from you in the months and years ahead. So on behalf of the organization, thank you so much for contributing your scarce and valuable time to the movement and absent any new business, I think we're adjourned.

Wherever You Listen to Podcasts