Government & Policy

From the battlefield to the boardroom: Leadership lessons from Admiral James Stavridis

November 18, 2022

From the battlefield to the boardroom: Leadership lessons from Admiral James Stavridis

James Stavridis

Retired US Admiral

Retired US Navy Admiral and former Supreme Allied Commander of NATO, Admiral James Stavridis joined Willy for a wide-ranging conversation.

If there’s one thing this Walker Webcast guest knows, it’s that just one instant can change your life forever. James Stavridis, a retired US Navy Admiral and former Supreme Allied Commander of NATO, joined Willy for a wide-ranging conversation. They talk about how James survived the 9/11 attack on the Pentagon, Putin’s “unsustainable burn rate,” the possibility of China becoming a global superpower, the critical ability to make tough choices under pressure, and much more. 

Willy starts by asking James what he believes made him who he is today. The answer includes playing squash at the United States Naval Academy and his family. James had been set on following the career path of his father, “a very proud career infantry officer” in the United States Marine Corps who had fought in WWII, Korea, and Vietnam. But one moment between his freshman and sophomore year set him on a different trajectory. 

James talks about how the first 20 years of his career as a sailor took place during the Cold War, studying the Russian Navy and confronting them at sea. Before the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Russians were a formidable force, James says, not the “mere shadow of the Soviet Navy” they are today. But Russia never made the necessary investments in aircraft carriers, James says, and this gave the United States an advantage.

James reveals to Willy that he had a shot at Osama bin Laden in the mid-1990s. He and his crew were on a mission to “launch a large bag of tomahawks” at a terrorist training camp in South Asia. But the Pakistanis warned bin Laden just a few moments before the strike. 

Fast forward to September 11, 2001 and bin Laden’s attack on the Pentagon. James’ near-death experience that day drew home two important realizations. First, your life can change forever in an instant—a topic James explores in his most recent book, To Risk It All. The second lesson: Be ready to respond in a crisis.

James says the aftermath of 9/11 challenged him to rethink his entire operations in the Navy. “Everyone was deeply angry, which fueled the ability for making dramatic changes,” he says. But “parochialism” ultimately held them back. 

Then the conversation turns to the current geopolitical landscape, starting with the Western Hemisphere. The U.S. is “deeply underweight” in South America, according to James, even though the region boasts “tons of natural resources” and has “made the jump to true democracy, with a few exceptions.” South America offers enormous potential: economically, culturally, and geographically, he says. 

America’s focus on Columbia was necessary for the global war on terror, he declares, even though the United States never more than 1,000 troops in the country at a time. As for the United States, the U.S. is well on its way to becoming a bilingual, Spanish-speaking country, he says, something that “will be beneficial over time.” 

James then offers his perspectives on NATO. Finland and Sweden joining would be monumental, he says, since both nations have remained neutral for so long. Such a development also offers “huge opportunities,” since both nations have “turnkey militaries” and “joining forces would mean another 800 miles of border for Putin to protect.”

Putin’s current operations and the Russian military are unsustainable, James declares. As for the threat of China invading Taiwan, he sees this as “not currently probable.” 

At the end of the conversation, James shares his two yearly reads, To Kill a Mockingbird and Old Man and the Sea, and the most meaningful engagement of his 50-medal career. He closes the webcast by reminding the audience of America’s critical place in the world. 

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