GLG Signature Series: William McRaven, Admiral, U.S. Navy (Ret.)

GLG Signature Series: William McRaven, Admiral, U.S. Navy (Ret.)

Recently, Admiral William McRaven, retired U.S. Navy four-star Admiral and former University of Texas System Chancellor, sat down for a 60-minute virtual session with select GLG clients.

Admiral McRaven was the commander of U.S. Special Operations Command, leading 69,000 men and women in counter-terrorism operations across the world. He has advised Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama on defense issues. In 2011, Admiral McRaven oversaw the Navy SEAL raid that killed Osama bin Laden in Pakistan.

Before Admiral McRaven’s session, we asked him three questions about his thoughts on leadership.

Throughout your career, you’ve stressed the importance of education. How do you weigh academic education vs. experiential education?

You need both education and experience. Education provides the intellectual framework for thinking about complex problems. Experience fills in the framework and provides you a clear picture of the problem. When I was preparing for the bin Laden raid, I referred to the work I did at the Naval Post Graduate School to build the base plan, and then I used the experience of several officers and senior officials enlisted to flesh out the plan to ensure it would work. You always need both.

You’ve said that leaders should strive to be “moral, legal, and ethical” if they are to be successful. Can you define how one can fulfill each of those imperatives in practice?

Leadership is all about integrity – being honest, forthright, duty bound. The character of the leader will manifest itself in both their decisions and their actions. As an officer, I tried always to base my decisions on three simple rules; were they moral, legal, and ethical? It’s easy to say, harder to do, but follow the rules (ethical), follow the law (legal), and follow what you know to be morally right. You’ll know it when you see it. If in your heart you think you are doing something wrong, you probably are.

How important is empathy for a leader who wants to be successful? What does consistently and authentically demonstrating empathy achieve for a leader?

No question that a leader has to be empathetic, but remember, a leader’s job is to accomplish a task with the people they have on the team. If being empathetic helps because it motivates the people who work for you to be successful, then be empathetic. But sometimes a leader has to make the hard decisions, irrespective of the feelings of the folks who work for you. Knowing when to listen and be sympathetic and when to charge forward into the fray regardless of feelings is the art of leadership. No one said it was easy!


About William McRaven

Admiral William McRaven is a retired U.S. Navy four-star Admiral and former University of Texas System Chancellor. As the Commander of U.S. Special Operations Command, Admiral McRaven led a force of 69,000 men and women and was responsible for conducting counter-terrorism operations worldwide. He has advised Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, and other U.S. leaders, on defense issues. Admiral McRaven oversaw the 2011 Navy SEAL raid in Pakistan that killed al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. He has received the Republic of France’s Légion d’honneur, the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association’s National Award, and the National Intelligence Award. In 2016, Admiral McRaven was named the recipient of the Ambassador Richard M. Helms Award by the Central Intelligence Agency Officers Memorial Foundation.