Leaders often talk about how the traits of accountability and transparency helped make them who they are, but to retired Navy Adm. Mike Mullen, who served as the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff for four years under President George W. Bush and President Barack Obama, leadership is quite simply how you listen, learn and lead.
It’s not just a coincidence that communication is as important in the war zone as it is in an organization — and that’s where Mullen emphasizes listening to what his team members have on their minds.
Smart Business talked with Mullen about the challenges of being in command:
Q. What do you see as the most important trait that any leader must possess?
A. Integrity. Be true to yourself, and obviously true to your values. The value of integrity intrinsically has been a driver for me since I was a midshipman at the U.S. Naval Academy. It has served me exceptionally well.
Integrity encompasses being honest, truthful and consistent — both publicly and privately in leadership positions — and representing that in every situation. It is most evident in the toughest decisions you have to make.
Q. And how can you ensure integrity is present in leadership?
A. What I loved about command was the responsibility and authority that came with it. But more than anything else, the other piece was accountability — accountable leadership. That is not just having someone hold you accountable, but having enough strength yourself as a leader to hold yourself accountable.
I just found that even with those decisions that can be very unpopular, if you are true to that value of integrity, even if it may not seem to some to be the best decision, it [integrity] holds you in the best stead as a leader over the long term. And because of that, it becomes incredibly supportive of those very, very tough decisions.
Q. So what can help a leader make those tough decisions more effectively?
A. As a more senior leader, I learned to keep a diversity of views around me. The more senior I got, the more diverse the people, the recommendations and the discussions had to be in order for me to make the right decision.
I had people around me who were willing to say, ‘Hey, this is when you got it wrong,’ as opposed to the opposite, which is isolation, where nobody will tell the emperor [he] doesn’t have any clothes on.
Q. You’ve mentioned the importance of listening to others in order to help you become a better leader. How did you do that?
A. Everywhere I went, whether we had a town hall meeting or we could call an all-hands meeting, I would take questions from the audience. So, for example, when a young enlisted man would give me a question of which I didn’t know the answer, I said, “I don’t know the answer, but give me your email address. I will go research it and get back to you.”
I did that. I went back and looked at whatever their concern was. And some of those concerns generated significant changes in the military, or in the particular service they were in. For me, as chairman, that was a vital part of trying to understand what I was asking them to do, and then taking that feedback and trying to fix the problem that they raised — if it made sense to do it.
A good leader can make such a difference, and create something out of nothing, whereas a bad leader is unable to do that. The ingredient that makes a difference is leadership.
Retired Navy Adm. Mike Mullen served more than 43 years in the Navy, having served as the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff from 2007 to 2011, and as chief of naval operations from 2005 to 2007. He will be the keynote speaker at the Dec. 5 American Red Cross Hero Awards. Learn more about the Hero Awards at www.clevelandheroes.com.