Admiral Mike Mullen

"What do you do when you fail?"

Admiral Mike Mullen, USN (ret.), Former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Charles and Marie Robertson visiting professor at the Woodrow Wilson School is considered one of the most influential Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in history. Mullen spent four years as Chairman—the top military adviser to Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama. Admiral Mullen oversaw the end of the combat mission in IRAQ and the development of a new military strategy for Afghanistan, while promoting international partnerships, new technologies and new counter-terrorism tactics culminating in the killing of Osama bin Laden. A 1968 graduate from the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, he rose to be Chief of Naval Operations prior to assuming duties as Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff. Since retiring from the Navy, Mullen has joined the boards of General Motors, Sprint, and the Bloomberg Family Foundation.  He teaches at the Woodrow Wilson School of International and Public Affairs at Princeton University and co-directs the Program in History and the Practice of Diplomacy. 

Read and watch to learn why Admiral Mullen abandoned his initial plan to join the business world after 5 years in the Navy, how he recovered from a failure that almost ended his military career, and what he's personally most proud of about his time as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. 

1. What’s your relationship to Princeton? 
I retired as an admiral from the Navy four years ago. I’ve taught at the Woodrow Wilson School since 2012. I designed and teach a course about achieving the right balance between U.S. diplomatic power and U.S. military power. The underlying thesis is, we've used the military a lot. Is there is a way to generate a more integrated strategy across the fullness of our government? I teach one course in the fall, usually with about 20 students. 

2. Can you talk about a time when you achieved this balance between U.S. diplomatic power and U.S. military power?

One actually came out of a relationship I had with the head of the Russian Military.  We got to know each other in very difficult circumstances in 2008 because Russia had just invaded Georgia.  There was no communication between the U.S. and Russia at the presidential level, at the Secretary of State level, at the national security level, so the only communication link that we had was between the military.  I met General Nikolay Makarov in this very difficult set of circumstances.  I talked to him multiple times over the weekend they invaded Georgia.  At the end of those discussions he sent a message to me that basically said we need to keep talking, and so we did.  We subsequently met in Helsinki to discuss things that we might be able to work on together and to discuss our differences. A couple of years later he and I ended up negotiating the details of the New START treaty, which was a treaty that significantly reduced the number of strategic nuclear weapons both countries had.  We were involved in a number of other activities as a result of our relationship, as well.  That certainly was a time where the diplomatic side and the diplomats that were in the lead in these negotiations, were supported by the military side to achieve a better outcome, not just between the two countries but also for the world.

3. You’re known for having personal qualities that allow you to connect with people from all around the world.  Where does this quality come from?  
It's hard to pin down exactly where this came from. I graduated from Annapolis in the late sixties and within a year was deployed off the coast of Vietnam. Really from a very young age I've been around the world.  I've seen people around the world. I’ve come to understand that they have their own views, they aren't all like Americans, they have cultures, and they have hope for their kids.  As a result of that I’ve engaged people all over the world from the late sixties until just a few weeks ago, actually.  I just think it's important to have relationships, so I work pretty hard through my engagements to establish relationships. Sometimes with some pretty bad characters and other times with people that I really care a lot about, that we sort of see the world in the same vein. I think that's really made a difference.

4. Advice to young people hoping to be diplomats or to join the military? 
Well I think for both the diplomatic side and the military side one of the things that we both need to do is understand each other better.  We need to reach out earlier to understand what the challenges are, both in the Foreign Service world as well as in the military world.  One of the things that we rarely did in advance of a crisis was have relationships with individuals and organizations that you always meet in crises. It's a very difficult time to establish a relationship, in the middle of a crisis.  I've always encouraged people that I’ve dealt with, certainly in the military, to reach out early to include other organizations in our activities and to see if there's a way we can be included, so we understand each other before there's a crisis.

5. Think back to when you were first graduating.  What would surprise you most about the way your life has played out?
When I was young, I graduated when I was 23 years old, my immediate plan was to spend five years in the Navy and then get out and get into the business world.  But what I found was that I really enjoyed the Navy.  The Navy gave me a lot of responsibility early.  I deployed off the coast of Vietnam, but I saw East Asia, I saw Japan, I saw the Philippines, I saw Hong Kong. I was very excited about seeing other parts of the world.  I also thrived on responsibility.  The Navy gave me Command when I was very young, when I was 26 years old, my own ship.  I deployed to the Mediterranean right in the middle of the ‘73 war, which was very exciting and challenging, both of which I really enjoyed.

6. Tell me about a time you failed. 

Well in that tour as a young officer I failed pretty miserably from a professional standpoint.  There are a lot of people, including some of my mentors, who basically said, ‘You need to shift careers here because you don't have a future in the Navy.’  I loved being in the Navy that much and I loved being in command, so I wanted to do that again, so I persisted. I had some help. I had some mentors that gave me guidance in terms of how I could potentially succeed in the future, for whom I'll always be incredibly grateful. I tell a lot of young people I learned a lot more from that failure, and from failures in my life, than I ever learned from successes I had.  And it wasn’t the specifics of the failure, it’s what do you do when you fail? Do you get up, dust yourself off, learn what you should learn, make yourself a better person and move forward?  Because of some of the guidance that I had, as well as just my own determination, I was able to do that.

7. The military has just opened all its positions to women. How do you see women’s role in the military? What would you say to young women who are considering joining the military?
Just ironically, I was stationed at Annapolis in the mid-seventies when women were first admitted to the service academies. I was on the admissions board. So I have been involved in the integration of women in the Navy since 1975, 1976. I'm a big advocate. I learned a long time ago that that the more diverse your team is the better the outcomes are. Across gender as well as ethnic backgrounds, etc. So I've always been excited by the opportunities that have been created for women. In my particular branch of the Navy, since the early nineties it's been open to women. But the women that came into the Naval Academy in the mid-seventies and the women that came in as recently as a few years ago, they're still pioneers, because one of the things you can't do in the military is you can't laterally bring people in. You have to start at the bottom and we do that every single year. So I've grown to greatly appreciate the women who have been pioneers and blazed trails.

I think having a different view at the table strengthens a commander's decision space and it strengthens the team. There's a lot of discussion about standards and I'm right there. I think if a woman can meet the standards in any of the warfare areas including SEALS, or Delta Force, or Special Forces, which seems to be the furthest ones out there, then more power to them. We’re not going to lower the standards nor should we.

There was a time in the seventies when women who came into Annapolis couldn't do a handful of pull-ups or a handful of pushups, which were with the physical attributes at the time. I can remember ten or fifteen years later watching a young lady do a lot more pushups than I could do. Obviously times continue to change, and I think there will be women that will be able to meet these standards and more power to them. And I think we're all better off as an organization in that regard.

8.  What do you think is the biggest misconception in your field? 
It's just too stereotypical. Again it's the kind of thing that that isn't unique to the military. When you don't know someone you have stereotypes, which are made up by the media, or industry, or whatever it is. It's only about war fighting and in fact in the end the military quite frankly is about keeping the peace. I would hope we would never go to war again. History doesn't prove that as out as much of a possibility. These are extraordinary young men and women who are service-oriented and will give back to their country many times over the course of their lives. A little over 80% of them leave the military. They return to their communities throughout the country. They’re extraordinary people in terms of their ability to function under pressure and to lead teams. They're dedicated, loyal, they take care of themselves, and they take care of their people. They’re the kind of people that any employer would hire in a minute. Making that connection is very difficult. I worry a little bit that in these wars that too many people think that veterans are damaged goods. There are certainly veterans who have who have sacrificed incredibly in these wars and some of them have sustained some pretty serious injuries, both visible and invisible. But quite frankly, that's the vast minority. That's in the single digits in terms of percent. So, I would encourage leaders in their communities to reach out in their communities to touch those who served and made a difference. I know that they will never regret that relationship.

9. What excites you most about our future?  What scares you most about our future?
There’s a single answer to both and that’s just the great uncertainty that’s out there. It's incredibly exciting, and there are tremendous opportunities to take advantage of the change that is out there.  Part of my engagement philosophy is I enjoy people. I enjoy being around people, I enjoy leading people, I enjoy, in fact, mentoring people and figuring out in our relationship how we can improve the organization, improve success, whatever that might be. But in the end it really is all about people, so how do you do that and how do you make it better for the world?

I know that's a real core issue here at Princeton.  Within just about every student that I've met, and the professors as well, is this desire to make the world a better place. To search for those opportunities that abound out there and to be able to match your own skill set with succeeding in some opportunity like that, I think is really exciting.

At the same time that uncertainty is pretty daunting because the world is changing so fast and we need young people to invest themselves early in the workplace. We need new young ideas, fresh blood.  Many of the students that I talk to in my classes, when I ask them what they're going to do, many of them come back and say they're going to go consult. I'm not overly encouraged by that, in the sense that I understand the model, but I don't know what you're going to consult in because at this age you just don't know anything. I get it that you're going to go look at some areas and then match up with something that you think might work for you, I’d just encourage, particularly when you're young and you have a freedom you don't really appreciate, to go do things you might never do be able to do again. To go places, to take some risks, to see some people, some parts of the world where you can really make difference before you get anchored in the rest of your life, whatever that might be. So it's a great, uncertain, daunting time out there, but it's also just filled with great opportunities.

10. You’ve been lauded for your role in dismantling “don’t ask, don’t tell.” What are you personally most proud of about your time as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff?
When I took over the job as chairman, first of all, I was the head of the Navy two years into a four-year tour with no aspiration or idea that I’d be changing jobs. That was a surprise to me. I’m a sailor. We were in two ground wars, so I had to really learn a lot more about ground war, which I spent a lot of time on.  My main responsibility was to advise the President and the Secretary of Defense. In addition to that, I wanted the 2.2 million men and women who were wearing uniform to know that they had as a leader at the top someone who cared about them, who understood them, who took their concerns into consideration as I made decisions or recommendations every single day. So I worked hard to connect with them-especially the ground forces, the Army and Marine Corps, globally. Not just in the war areas in Iraq and Afghanistan, but also throughout the world. And over the course of four years in that job I got a lot of feedback that gave me some comfort that I had achieved a great deal along the lines of that particular goal. The Navy for me and the military for me have always been about leadership. That's what kept me in and that's what I thrive on and that's what I really tried to do when I was chairman. So I am most proud of leading those young men and women in a very difficult time in our history and doing everything I could to make sure that they were well taken care of.

11. Tell me about one of your mentors.

Back to when I failed as a young lieutenant and had no future, I went to the only mentor I had at the time, who was a former commanding officer of mine. He helped me navigate through the system, which was a very difficult system. It basically took me 11 years to recover from a career standpoint. He guided me through headquarters; I didn't know anything about headquarters at the time, and the administrative process, to potentially create an opportunity that would get me “back in the hunt”, if you will. He’s a dear friend. He’s also the reason I stayed in the Navy originally, because before this time when I failed, I had been a young junior officer on his ship and he really made it fun. He made going from wherever we were to wherever we were going exceptionally fun. He loved the challenges, he loved being at sea, and I just found myself following in his footsteps as a young junior officer. I had great admiration for him. When I got in trouble I didn’t have a lot of people to call, so I called him and he helped me with that. And then I actually failed pretty miserably years later in command of another ship and I had two senior officers, and in fact there have been other commanding officers who basically had been fired for what I failed in, and I had two senior officers, both admirals, who basically said, ‘We think you have some potential, you need to learn the lessons,’ so they got the system out of the way so that I’d have a future. If they hadn’t weighed in I’d have had no future whatsoever.

12. What do you think about the growing divide between civilians and the military?
What I've been concerned about is the drift of the American military away from the American people.  We’re about one half of one percent of the country. We come from fewer and fewer places, more south and west now than ever before. So the American people really don't know us, except as we are depicted in the media. Sometimes that can be constructive and too often it isn't very constructive. There are so few families that have anybody in the military and really have a relationship. I think fundamentally we have to reach out and into communities throughout the country. We have to take advantage of the National Guard. Every state in the country has National Guard so we've got military members living in every neighborhood in the country and I think we need to reach out through them to sustain, to both make and sustain contact with the country. It is a fabulous, unmatched fighting force. It’s over 2 million young men and women, and in the 43 years that I served it's easily the best highest-quality force that I've seen. That said, it's increasingly isolated from America. I think in the long run that's a really bad outcome. I actually liken it to the French Foreign Legion, which were very well compensated and America says, ‘Go off and fight our dirty little wars so we can get on with our lives.’ The American people didn't have to buy into the Iraq war and they didn't have to buy into the Afghanistan war. We function best as a country when we're all in together and that's really a key part of it. So part of the idea, at least my view of the future, is when a president gets to a point where he or she makes a decision that we’re going to go to war again I would hope that we would have to call up a half a million young men and women. That certainly more than enlivens the debate. It gets America completely in and it really is representative of the significance of that decision.

13. If you could clone yourself and lead two separate lives, in what other field would you work?
That’s hard. When you do something for 40-plus years it's awful hard to think…I mean it's been a great life. It wasn't expected. In fact, when I went to Annapolis - I grew up in the movie business in Hollywood - when I went there as a 17-year-old kid, my original plan was to leave after two years and go back to some school on the West Coast and to not be in the military at all. Again, which speaks to how much you know when you're 17 or when you're 22 or 23. Fortunately, between those who mentored me, as well as just great opportunities, I fell in love with the work that I was doing. Most of it was really tied to just great people. When you grow up in a small town in Los Angeles, in a small suburb, you don't get to see much of the world. When I showed up at the Naval Academy I met kids from all over the country. That was really exciting. There were things happening all over the country and subsequently things happening all over the world that really intrigued me and drew me to this career. I had no particular ambitions. I certainly never sought to get to very senior positions. What I did like more than anything else was command. I commanded at lots of levels, but if I had only commanded at the more junior level, three ships, it would have been a great life and I’d have moved on to something else. Also, I was supported by a wonderful woman that I've been married to for 45 years. We raised a family, two great boys, so there's a lot to be said for the life that we led. It was challenging, we saw the world, we wrote history, we made a difference, and it's something that we're all very proud of.

14. Career advice to new college grads?
It's pretty hard to know when you’re in your young twenties what you’re going to do for the rest of your life. I would encourage anybody in that situation not to plan to do what I call ‘running your life through a straw.’  If you think you can plan your life at that age for 20, or 25, or 30 years...that was a pipe dream for me in the sixties.  Particularly with the way the world is changing right now there’s zero chance that's going to happen.  So keep your options open.  Put yourself in a position to have multiple careers, multiple ways to meet what you see as the challenges of the future in a world that continues to change and can be very exciting.

15. Any other advice?

There are so many opportunities out there. Don't sell yourself short. If there's an area that you really want to go do something in, go do that. This is a time in your life when you really are forming your future. Another part of what you don't know when you're in your twenties and early thirties is how much of what you're going through is going to impact you in later life. So seize those opportunities. It's an exciting time. Take some risks. Be out there on the edge as opposed to just sort of right in the middle. It can be very exciting and very risky out there, but you also learn a lot. In particular I guess what's a lot different than when I was young is just the global aspect of the world. You're already well connected throughout the world in many ways that I never was. Take advantage of that to learn about other peoples and other cultures, because it's going to take all those peoples and all those cultures to work together to make the world a better place. And you’re more than capable of doing that.

This interview was conducted and condensed by Lisa Einstein '13