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An Admiral's Take On Admiral Mike Mullen's Leadership


October 1, 2011 marks the retirement of Admiral Mike Mullen from the U.S. Navy and from his role as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The Washington Post's David Ignatius offers a nice recap of the Mullen years in an exit interview column with the Chairman. I'm an admirer of Mullen and his leadership but have not had the opportunity to meet him.

So, as he retires, I thought I'd ask someone who knows and has worked with Admiral Mullen for his perspective on the leadership qualities he has shown over the course of his career and in his final job as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs. George Sterner is a retired U.S. Navy Vice Admiral. His career included command of two nuclear submarines and the Naval Sea Systems Command. He is also the first person I interviewed for my book, The Next Level.

In this guest post, Admiral Sterner uses stories to illustrate the leadership qualities of Mike Mullen including his preparation, collaboration, listening, action orientation, courage, honesty and thoughtfulness for others.

Let's hear from Admiral Sterner:

I first encountered the Chairman as "Commander" Mike Mullen when he came to see me while I was managing the Navy's torpedo exercise assets. His Pentagon boss had directed him to, " ... go see Sterner and find out why the surface Navy is not getting their share, ..." of one thing or another in my program. This was not an unusual tension between the budget offices in the Pentagon and the procurement officials in the acquisition commands. Fortunately, we both did our homework before the meeting. Out of our meeting grew a lasting relationship and respect that served us well. Captain and later Admiral Mullen frequently sought input from the technical offices in our organization to get another perspective before he moved on an issue.

I was repeatedly impressed with his ability to listen to the inputs from the technical community, regardless of rank or position. He didn't dwell on issues but thoughtfully collected information as an active listener, considered both sides of an issue and then moved forward. This was a refreshing approach, almost unique, in our vast bureaucracy. (Remember, we were working in a world where a thousand people can say "no" but only one could say "yes," or so it seemed most days!)

I have never known him to side-step an issue or shy away from making the tough decision, even when others might counsel against it. Most importantly, there were very few surprises; if you had an issue with his approach you were seldom blindsided when you heard the public version.

The most endearing trait in the Chairman's persona is the thoughtfulness that goes into every aspect of his work, ... day-in, day-out , ... with the most junior Sailor to the most senior official. Even today, as you see him in news spots with World leaders across the globe, you can almost feel the respect, the thoughtfulness and the sincerity of the man. He is truly a great American and has served his country well. Bravo Zulu!

Writer's note: "Bravo Zulu" is a Navy flag hoist signal from the days of only line-of-sight communications. It was hoisted by the Fleet Commander to acknowledge a particularly impressive feat. Today it is almost universally interpreted, in written or spoken messages, as "Well Done."

Executive coach Scott Eblin’s goal is to help you succeed at the next level of leadership. Throughout the week, he’ll offer his take on the leadership lessons in the news and his advice on your most pressing leadership questions. A former government executive, Scott is a graduate of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and is the author of The Next Level: What Insiders Know About Executive Success.

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