Leadership Lessons From Admiral James Stavridis


I had the honor of going one on one with one of the most respected leaders in the world: Admiral James Stavridis, the former Supreme Allied Commander of NATO. A true renaissance man, Admiral Stavridis is a retired four-star officer in the Navy; a graduate of the US Naval Academy and Tufts University, where he earned a PhD in International Relations and later became the 12th Dean of The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy; an operating executive of the international private equity firm The Carlyle Group; and the Chief International Security Analyst for NBC News. In 2016, Adm. Stavridis was on Hillary Clinton’s short list of Vice Presidential candidates and was on Donald Trump’s list of Secretary of State candidates.

I interviewed Admiral Stavridis as part of my Lessons In Leadership series in Thrive Global. Adm. Stavridis went deep, discussing the role his family has played in his development as a leader, sharing his insights on what it takes to excel as a leader today and delving into why he loves collecting antiquarian maps. Here are some excerpts from our interview:

Adam: How did you get here? What experiences have been most instrumental to your growth as a leader?

Adm. Stavridis: I think we become leaders in three ways.  First, through what we absorb in our families – I was lucky to grow up with two wonderful, ethical, and intellectually engaged parents.  My father was a US Marine Corps Officer, and we lived all over the world. My mother, who is 89 and still reads a couple of novels a week, was a terrific influence on me to be a reader and self-learner.  Second, we are a product of our educations – mine was at the US Naval Academy, which instilled discipline and a respect for others; and at Tufts University, where I earned a PhD in international relations.  When I went to Tufts in my 20s, I was a capable mariner and Naval Officer and knew how to launch a missile; at The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, I learned how to launch ideas. Third and finally, we become leaders as a result of the experiences we have in life, both good and bad.  After 37 years in the Navy, serving around the globe, I had a rich level of experience to apply to everything life could throw my way.

Adam: What failures, setbacks or challenges have been most impactful in developing your leadership skills?

Adm. Stavridis: Two come to mind.  As a young Commander in the Navy in my mid-30s, I was captain for a destroyer for the first time.  The ship was the rock star of the Norfolk waterfront and we won every conceivable award. I thought we were invulnerable.  Then we failed a major engineering experience, and I thought I would be fired. To my surprise, my Commodore – my immediate boss – gave me a second chance.  And my crew of 350 sailors rallied around me. But the biggest lesson was the way my peers – the other ship captains on the waterfront – all pitched in to help our ship through the challenges.  We often overlook the importance of peers to our development as leaders and the trajectory of our careers. So that was a failure from which I learned a great deal.

Another was my experience commanding 150,000 troops in Afghanistan.  We were in a very difficult phase in the campaign, and the classic “hard power” approach was not producing the results we needed to fight an insurgency.  We developed a better approach using some classic “soft power” tools to combat the insurgency – literacy training, medical diplomacy, economic development, humanitarian construction of schools, wells, and clinics.  While Afghanistan remains very challenging, we have today fewer than 14,000 US troops there, down by 90%, and it is the Afghan Security Forces who are defending their country. My four years in command at NATO taught me that you need innovation to succeed, and that the classic tools of combat will not always prevail.

Adam: Who are the greatest leaders you have been around and why do you admire them? What did you learn from them?

Adm. Stavridis: My father, a retired US Marine Colonel, inspired me to remain optimistic in the face of setbacks.  He also instilled a love of physical fitness, an important advantage for leaders – it provides additional energy and a boost when needed in difficult situations.  General Colin Powell, a mentor for two decades, has provided me a vision of good leadership with his good humor, vision, and simple articulation of leadership skills.  Lastly, I admire the current Chancellor of Germany, Angela Merkel. I got to know her when I was Supreme Allied Commander of NATO. She has political skill, determinations, and a rock-solid set of deeply held personal values.  Those have led her to make decisions – like accepting hundreds of thousands of refugees – that are not always popular, but were the right thing to do.

Adam: What is the biggest misconception people have about the military, the Navy and military leaders?

Adm. Stavridis: If you’ve ever seen the movie, “A Few Good Men,” you will recognize the ultimate stereotype in the form of Jack Nicholson’s Colonel of Marines at Guantanamo Bay.  He is smug, overbearing, domineering, prone to fits of extreme anger and outburst, and focused entirely on mission at the expense of his people. Nothing could be further from the truth.  The vast majority of leaders in the military are calm, focused, and know how to keep an appropriate balance between mission and taking care of their people.

The full interview can be found at https://thriveglobal.com/stories/lessons-in-leadership-one-on-one-with-admiral-james-stavridis.

Adam Mendler