Mullen Stresses Leadership, Accountability in Business School Speech
By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service
PHILADELPHIA, Oct. 3, 2008 A year and a day after taking office as the nation’s 17th chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Navy Adm. Mike Mullen spoke about leadership to the students of the Wharton Business School here last night.
Mullen spoke about what his 40 years in the U.S. military have taught him about leadership, telling the students he never intended to make the Navy a career, but got around great people who helped to open his eyes.
The chairman stressed accountability to the packed auditorium. The admiral said he was seven weeks into a 10-week course on leadership at Harvard University in 1991 before anyone even mentioned accountability.
“I didn’t understand that,” he said, “because leadership … is about understanding accountability – being held accountable and at the same time holding yourself accountable.”
Mullen told the students that his arrival at the U.S. Naval Academy in 1964 was an eye-opener.
“I was 17 years old and had been out of [California] once in my life,” Mullen said. Meeting and working with midshipmen from around the country was a learning experience, he said.
Being in the military offered him the opportunity to see the world, the admiral said, but most importantly, it offered the opportunity to lead.
“It gave me an awful lot of responsibility when I was very young,” Mullen said. “And the Navy kept feeding me these positions my entire life.”
In the military, Mullen told the students, command is the lodestone for leaders. “It’s the pinnacle,” he said, adding that accountability is fundamental to the joy and challenge of command because commanders find themselves having to put together teams to accomplish the missions they are assigned.
Command is built around trust – both up and down – and hinges on choosing the right people, Mullen said. The hardest job he has had in his 40 years in the military has been selecting personnel for the various missions, he told the audience.
Few people succeed by just “winging it,” the chairman said. He urged the young men and women to have a strategic plan and follow it. Leaders without a strategy or a plan are the ones who fail, he said.
Mullen urged the students not to fear failure. “I learned more from when I failed than when I succeeded,” he said, “but I wouldn’t recommend failing as much as you can so you can learn.”
If failure occurs, people should get up, dust off and get moving again, Mullen said. “Then it becomes, Do you have the depth, do you have the reputation, do you have the mentorship to succeed?” he said.
Mullen told of two of his own failures, one as a young officer and one when he was a bit more senior. He expressed his gratitude for mentors who didn’t give up on him then, and gave him the chance to continue, rather than firing him. “I learned a great deal from that experience alone,” he said.
Leaders have to change and grow, the chairman said. “If you’re not growing, you’re dead,” he said. “The questions become, How do you stimulate growth, and how do you reach for the right kind of growth?”
The chairman – the highest-ranking officer in the U.S. military – said he continues to grow. He continues to learn about the other services, he said -- especially the Army, which he calls the center of gravity for the U.S. military. He tries to learn best practices from private businesses and from subject-matter experts in such critical areas as cyber-defense, he told the audience.
The speed of today’s world complicates leadership, Mullen said, as new technologies exchange information at the speed of light. “How do we keep up to the speed of light?” he asked. “We better be able to, especially because being No. 2 in the business I’m in is not a great outcome.”
Leaders will succeed only if they are willing to work hard, and are willing to adapt, the chairman said.
Information is crucial to military and business success, Mullen said, but he noted that the more senior a leader becomes, the more removed he or she is from what’s really going on.
A leader “has to have people that will tell you the truth,” he said.
Finally, Mullen said, empathy is important for leaders. He said he finds it helpful to look at problems in areas such as Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iraq through the eyes of the people who live there. He visits the areas, speaks to the leaders and listens to them. “My growth in this job is tied to that,” he said.
Integrity and duty are not just words, the chairman said, and accountability is not an abstract concept.
“You will have to walk the walk,” he said. “You are what we will become in the future.”