James Stavridis (@stavridisj) is a retired United States Navy admiral, operating executive with The Carlyle Group, and author. His latest book, Sailing True North: Ten Admirals and the Voyage of Character, is out now.

What We Discuss with James Stavridis:

  • What Admiral Stavridis means when he says we’re “overweight in thinking about leadership and underweight in thinking about character.”
  • Why creativity and innovation are important for leaders — and the roadblocks that tend to smother these qualities as we achieve in our lives and careers.
  • Principles followed when top brass make decisions that put people in harm’s way.
  • The winners and losers in the recent decision to pull US troops from Syria and what this means for our former allies in the region.
  • Meditations on single malt scotch whisky and the dangers of bringing alcohol to sea on a US Navy ship.
  • And much more…

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Sailing True North: Ten Admirals and the Voyage of Character by Admiral James StavridisEver notice how the majority of books you’ll find at an airport kiosk or bestseller list lately address the influence and management of others? Pondering this phenomenon prompted Admiral James Stavridis — the first four-star Navy admiral ever to serve as the Supreme Allied Commander of NATO — to wonder if maybe our society has become “overweight in thinking about leadership and underweight in thinking about character.”

It might seem odd that a proven leader of such caliber made this observation about our collective obsession for leadership over character, but on this episode we talk to Admiral Stavridis about how these qualities have intersected among some of the most distinguished naval leaders of the last 2,500 years. In his book Sailing True North: Ten Admirals and the Voyage of Character, he makes the case that among admirals from Themistocles to Francis Drake, from Chester Nimitz to Grace Hopper, none were perfect, but all have lessons to teach us about the value of character — particularly among those who make life and death decisions. Listen, learn, and enjoy!

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Transcript for Admiral James Stavridis | The Voyage of Character (Episode 276)

Jordan Harbinger: [00:00:03] Welcome to the show. I’m Jordan Harbinger. As always, I’m here with producer Jason DeFillippo. On The Jordan Harbinger Show, we decode the stories, secrets, and skills of the world’s most brilliant and interesting people and turn their wisdom into practical advice that you can use to impact your own life and those around you.

[00:00:19] I want to help you see the Matrix when it comes to how these amazing people think and how they behave. I want you to become a better thinker if you’re new to the show. We’ve got episodes with spies and CEOs, athletes, and authors, thinkers, and performers, as well as toolboxes for things like negotiation, public speaking, body language, persuasion. So if you’re smart and you like to learn and improve, well you’ll be right at home here with us.

[00:00:40] Today on the show, Admiral James Stavridis, he was the first four-star Navy admiral ever to serve as the Supreme Allied Commander of NATO. This guy is such a warrior scholar. He’s got an unbelievable depth of knowledge and education. He said we’re overweight in thinking about leadership and underweight in thinking about character. So rather than just another leadership podcast here, we discussed some of the deeper issues of what makes up a character as well as some practices that Admiral Stavridis brings into his own life to make sure he’s reflecting upon what’s important, so he can improve and move forward as a leader and as an individual. We also discussed why creativity and innovation are important for leaders and some roadblocks that tend to smother this as we achieve more in our lives and in our careers, and of course what we can do about it to remove those roadblocks. And something I ask all the top military brass when they come on the show, namely how they make decisions that might put people in danger — these are high stakes decisions. What principles does Admiral Stavridis try to follow when he weighs the component factors? All that and more here today on the show.

[00:01:41] If you’re wondering how I get people like this — what on Earth do you get in touch with Admiral Stavridis in the first place? Well, I’m teaching you how to do that: Six-Minute Networking. It will bring amazing people into your life for personal or professional reasons. You don’t have to be doing a podcast — in fact, I hope you’re not doing a podcast. Do anything other than a podcast, and you’ll have an easier career path. I promise you that. We’re teaching you how to create all these connections, maintain them over time. It’s only a few minutes a day. Check it out at jordanharbinger.com/course. It’s free — not enter-your-credit-card free, just free-free at jordanharbinger.com/course. By the way, most of the guests on the show, they actually subscribe to the course and the newsletter, so come join us and you’ll be in great company. In the meantime, here’s Admiral Stavridis. Enjoy!

[00:02:26] You write a lot about character in the book, and I want to get into that in a little bit. But first, you were the first Supreme Allied Commander of NATO that wasn’t a — I don’t know what you’d say — ground force warrior? I don’t even know what the title was. Or general.

Adm. James Stavridis: [00:02:42] I think the right way to say it is I was the first admiral to command a NATO — to be the Supreme Allied Commander. I was the 16th. The first one was General Dwight David Eisenhower, and all of my predecessors were generals. I was the first admiral.

Jordan Harbinger: [00:02:57] And you kind of got hoodwinked by the Secretary of Defense, right? It wasn’t a job you actually wanted. What happened there?

Adm. James Stavridis: [00:03:03] I always wanted to go to the Pacific and be the commander of US Pacific Command, which is where all good admirals go. It’s our tradition for a Navy admiral; becoming Commander of the Pacific is like slipping into a jacuzzi. But Secretary Gates had other ideas. He wanted me to go to NATO. I wasn’t enthusiastic, and I told him with great respect, “You know, it’s been great, but I think it might be time for me to take my shot at civilian life.” He said, “Well, we really want you to do it.” We went back and forth a few times and he said, “Look, it’s okay. You can turn down these orders, but first you have to tell President Obama.” So, I said, “Fine, I’ll go tell President Obama.”

[00:03:43] Secretary Gates and I went over there and walked into the Oval and President Obama got up, got a big smile on his face, stuck his hand out and said, “Congratulations, Jim. Thank you for agreeing to be our next Supreme Allied Commander of NATO.” I caved — I so caved. It’s hard to be around a president — particularly somebody I really admire, like President Obama — and see that he really wants you to do the job. And I said, “Thank you, Mr. President. I look forward to the challenge.” So that’s how I got the job.

Jordan Harbinger: [00:04:14] Out of the jacuzzi and into the — I don’t know — administrative offices of NATO.

Adm. James Stavridis: [00:04:19] Into the boiling pot of NATO.

Jordan Harbinger: [00:04:23] Yeah. Which seems like herding cats, kind of — I mean, no disrespect, but you can’t boss everyone around at NATO.

Adm. James Stavridis: [00:04:30] Not at all, and you cannot think that just because you’re the American in the room, that everyone’s going to fall in line. You haven’t really had to work a room until you are walking up to the Bulgarian Ambassador to NATO or the Chief of Defense of Romania and convincing them to come with us into Afghanistan. We think it’s a stretch for us but, of course, the 9/11 attacks came from Afghanistan. They are there — those Europeans — because of our alliance, and you’ve got to understand their situation as you try and convince them to sail alongside us.

Jordan Harbinger: [00:05:05] I would imagine that Bulgaria and Romania — as former Soviet satellite states — we’re kind of like, “Hey, we were pretty close to the last disaster that was Afghanistan. How sure are you that you want to go there and get mixed up in that?”

Adm. James Stavridis: [00:05:17] Yeah. It’s funny you say that. The closer you get geographically to the Russian Federation within NATO — so as you get to Poland, Romania, Bulgaria, the former Warsaw Pact States — they know that history very well — of Russia in the graveyard of empires in Afghanistan. They were skeptical, but again, the point I want to underline, Jordan, is at the end of the day, they came with us. They came and fought alongside us. They lost troops there and they did it because they believed in the NATO Alliance.

Jordan Harbinger: [00:05:47] It must be hard to sell to your people that you lose troops in Afghanistan and they’re like, “What is this, 1973? What’s going on over here?”

Adm. James Stavridis: [00:05:55] Exactly, exactly right. And it is a testament to the persuasiveness of the leadership in those countries that they were able to come alongside. Of course, it’s not just Eastern Europe — the Brits, the French, the Dutch, the Belgians, the Danes, the Italians, the Germans — they all took significant combat losses and it is a tough sell. Just like it is here in the States. Let’s face it! We do want to get out of these forever wars, but we’ve got to do it in a smart way.

Jordan Harbinger: [00:06:28] Your grandfather fled Turkey in a pogrom against Greeks, which is something I didn’t even know about until I started reading your stuff. I mean, you never really think of Greeks as being an oppressed minority, but they definitely were after the Ottoman Empire. Then he came to America and then nearly a hundred years later, you — his grandson — returned to the same city in Turkey in command of a billion-dollar warship. You’re more professional than me. I think I might’ve sailed into port standing on the bow with my middle finger held high, but that’s probably not great diplomacy.

Adm. James Stavridis: [00:06:59] I tried to really take the high road on that episode and you’ve got the history right. This is the city. Today, it’s called Izmir. Back in 1922, it was called Smyrna, and the Greeks were pushed onto quai walls down by the port, and my grandmother was rescued by Greek fishermen, carried away. And it was about a hundred years later, I came back and I refrained from any overt demonstrations, but when the Turkish Liaison Officer came aboard with his clipboard and said, “Well, Captain Stavridis, wow, you must be Greek. Is that a Greek name?” And I said, “Well, actually, my grandparents were citizens of the Ottoman Empire,” which they were, because they lived there until they were invited to leave. So I have a great deal of empathy for refugees around the world. I watch what has happened in Syria, where 14 million Syrians out of a pre-war population of 21 million have been pushed out of their homes. And now frankly, Jordan, you watch what’s happening to the Kurds and 300,000 Kurds are effectively walking into the desert, pushed by Turkey out of their homes in Syria. And here’s the news flash: winter is coming — both literally and figuratively — in that region.

Jordan Harbinger: [00:08:21] Yeah, I was going to ask you about that. I sort of had it saved for the end, but right now we might as well. What do you think about the US pulling out of Syria and essentially leaving the Kurds in a lurch? It really sounds like Greeks circa 1920 — I don’t know — or whenever that was that your grandfather got pushed out of Turkey.

Adm. James Stavridis: [00:08:35] Yep, very much a similar feeling. Look, there are four big winners on the table here, and none of them are the United States of America. Turkey is a winner in a certain sense because they are getting what they want, which is this border security and safety. Russia is a big winner here because Vladimir Putin is effectively peeling Turkey away from NATO. We’re going to see Turkey and Russia conducting joint patrols together. That’s unsettling, to say the least. The third winner here is Iran, which now has effectively a clear path from Tehran through Baghdad, through Damascus, to the Mediterranean sea. This is now just a devoid of US influence, so Iran is a winner. And fourth and finally — the Islamic State — and they are going to surge back as a result of this. I think they are not going to be held in these prisons. And unfortunately, all of that is a result of a, what appears to be a single impulsive conversation by President Trump with President Erdogan of Turkey. There are a lot of outcomes here that are not favorable for US Diplomacy.

Jordan Harbinger: [00:09:50] So, if the US pulls out, how come like Germany or another powerful state, the UK, doesn’t go, “You know what? You guys are idiots. We’re not going to let this fall into chaos. Let’s go there instead.” How come they can’t do it?

Adm. James Stavridis: [00:10:02] I think they can do it. And here’s the way to approach it. It is to try and turn this into a NATO mission. And here you’d have 29 nations collectively with 52 percent of the world’s GDP, three million men and women — under arms — almost all volunteers, 24,000 military aircraft, 800 ocean-going ships to back them up from the sea. NATO can do this. Let’s take this thing out of the Russia-Turkey channel and let’s make it a NATO mission. Or here’s another idea: make it a United Nations peacekeeping mission. There are several of those quite effectively around the world. Or here’s another idea: a little edgier would be make it a joint NATO-Russia mission. We’ve actually done that before. We did it in the Balkans during some periods of turbulence there. What I hate to see is Turkey being peeled away from the NATO Alliance. That’s very concerning to me.

Jordan Harbinger: [00:10:59] Yeah. I think that that’s Turkey being sort of a strategic player as it is, especially right now, it’s really bad for them to be moving further towards alliances that are hostile, effectively towards the rest — or just out for their own. I mean, Erdogan doesn’t seem like the kind of guy who’s really thinking, “How do I become a player in the international stage where everybody gets along well and likes me?”

Adm. James Stavridis: [00:11:23] Exactly right. And by the way, there’s another kind of pernicious knock-on effect here — and you kind of alluded to it — let’s say you are a South Korean and you are looking at this massive North Korean Army across the DMZ at their nuclear weapons. And right now there are 26,000 US troops in Korea. But if you’re South Korean, you’ve got to be scratching your head and asking yourself, well, if the US really, really wants to get out of the Middle East, maybe they’re going to want to really, really get out of South Korea.

Jordan Harbinger: [00:11:57] Oh, yeah.

Adm. James Stavridis: [00:11:58] If you’re in Estonia and you’re part of NATO even, but you look at Russia, which considers Estonia part of greater Russia, and you’ve got to be asking yourself, “If the Russians start rolling tanks in here like they did into Ukraine, are the Americans really going to be here for us?” When you hear President Trump say recently, “We’re done fighting in these bloodstained sands.“ Okay, I get it. We all want to get out of these “endless wars.” On the other hand, it’s going to have a knock-on effect in the confidence of other nations about our alliance systems, Jordan.

Jordan Harbinger: [00:12:34] I know that you actually almost became an attorney, much like myself. I actually went through law school and finished it. But I thought this was an interesting little side path — well, side path; you became an admiral instead — not quite what I meant to say. But this is one of those little linchpin decisions in life that take you in another direction. And I would say you obviously did pretty well for yourself not going to law school.

Adm. James Stavridis: [00:12:57] Well, you’re very kind. What happened was, I graduated from Annapolis. I went out for five extremely arduous years of sea duty. I was assigned to a destroyer, an aircraft carrier — Pacific, Atlantic, Mediterranean — was gone, gone, gone. And I thought, “You know, that was fun, that was challenging, but now I want to go to law school.” So I sent in a letter of resignation and my human resources professional called me up and said, “You know, Stavridis, you got a pretty good record here. What would it take to keep you in the Navy?” And I said, “Well, I’m getting out to go to law school. If the Navy would pay for my law school, I would consider additional obligation to the Navy. I’d be like a JAG officer.” And he scratched his head and didn’t sound enthusiastic, but he said, “I’ll check on it.” So a day and a half later, he calls me back and says, “Stavridis, I got great news. I got money for you to go to law school.” And I thought, “Wow, this is pretty good.” And I said, “How would this work? I’ve been accepted at Yale Law School. Would you just pay Yale, or would you give me the money and I would pay them? What are the mechanics?” We were on the phone and I heard papers kind of shuffling on his desk while he looked for the appropriate paper, and he said, “Yeah, actually I don’t have money for you to go to Yale Law School, but I do have money to go to something called,” and he read, “the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy.” And I said, “Well, that’s not actually a law school. That’s a graduate school of international relations at Tufts University.” Long pause, and he said — kind of annoyed— “Look, it’s got law in the title and I’ve got money for you to go there. Do you want to go or not?” Just kind of one of these little hinge moments and you know, I had just gotten married and I was trying to scramble to figure out how to pay for law school. Here was a bird in the hand — not exactly what I wanted — but it was graduate school. It was international relations, which fascinate me, so I walked down that path and ended up with a PhD from the Fletcher School and was able to use that many times in my career. Small moments.

Jordan Harbinger: [00:15:00] Yeah, small moments, and you’re still working off that test —

Adm. James Stavridis: [00:15:05] Exactly.

Jordan Harbinger: [00:15:06] So Sailing True North, your newest book, there are 2,500 years of history in the book, and I was pretty surprised by that because a lot of times when you read leadership books or anything written by any sort of leader — even military — usually the history goes back maybe a century or two, usually not 2,500 years.

Adm. James Stavridis: [00:15:26] Yeah. I felt this subject needed that great sweep of history, and I want to make a point about the book that’s important. It’s really not so much a leadership book. It’s a book about character, and a way to think about this is leadership is how we influence others. It’s that big door swinging that causes you to make other people want to follow you. That’s leadership. But that big door of leadership, Jordan, swings on the small hinge of character that’s buried in your heart, and I wanted to tell some stories that illustrated characters who were good leaders. Certainly, every one of the admirals in this book is a good leader. People follow him or her. But what I wanted to talk about was not the voyage of leadership that’s external, not that big, swinging door. I wanted to talk about that small hinge in the human heart. And to find 10 good stories, it took me 2,500 years of looking at different admirals.

Jordan Harbinger: [00:16:17] Yeah. Maritime commanders in the book, kind of as a — I don’t know if a metaphor is quite the right word — metaphor for personal development or as a parable. Not quite a parallel maybe, anyway, for personal development. Why do you think seafaring is a good way to teach values, leadership, personal growth, character?

Adm. James Stavridis: [00:16:45] First of all, my primary advice to anyone who’s a writer — This is my ninth book, I’ve written hundreds of articles. I love to write. I was the geeky kid who was the editor of the high school newspaper. I just like writing. But my advice for any writer is: write about what you know. I don’t know about business leadership. I don’t know about leadership in the medical world. I know a little bit about political leadership, like any citizen, but I haven’t served in Congress. I know the sea, I know admirals, I know what it is like to be on a ship, on the deep ocean, out of sight of land with responsibility for hundreds and thousands of men and women. I know that world. So first, to answer the question of why admirals, is because that’s the milieu that I truly understood. And the second answer is, I think the sea itself and sailing and being at sea — and pretty much everybody has at least gone out once or twice out of sight of land, I think — it is a contemplative world out there. You go on the deck of a ship and you look at that horizon where the sea and the sky come together and you know what you’re looking at? You’re looking at eternity. And it causes you to stop and think and reflect. And so I believe that those who follow the sea spend time — because they have time — to consider character in that inner voyage that can be vastly harder than the external voyage of leadership.

Jordan Harbinger: [00:18:13] You’ve said, “I think we’re overweight and thinking about leadership and underweight and thinking about character,” and you kind of brought that up earlier as well — how this isn’t a leadership book, but a book about character. What do you mean by overweight in leadership and underweight and character?

Adm. James Stavridis: [00:18:26] Well, first and most prosaically, walk into the bookstore in the airport and you will find typically, like, 25 books. They’re all about how to be a better leader, the leadership secrets of Abraham Lincoln, how Genghis Khan was a better leader, why Donald Trump is a good leader, why Barack Obama is a bad leader, or the reverse. There are a million books about leadership. Because I think it’s easier to write about leadership. It’s external. It’s out there. It’s visible. You will be hard-pressed to find a book that deals with character. I’ll give you one that was kind of rattling around my head when I wrote this, and it’s a David Brooks’ — very fine book — The Road to Character. As I read that, I thought, you know, this is a subject that just needs more exposition. So, the first answer is prosaic. And then secondly, when I say we’re overweight in leadership and underweight in character, think about this modern world, Jordan, where we are inundated constantly with efforts to lead us. When we look at social media and radio and thousands of different cable channels and hundreds of books published every day. We’re awash in efforts to influence us and to lead us in some direction, to shape our thoughts and ideas, but very few and far between are books that say, “What do you think in the small hours of the night when you’re contemplating how your day went? Did you say the right thing at this moment? Did you spend enough time with your children? Or did you spend less time with your workplace? Should you reverse that? And what are the traits of character that make you a successful human being?” And here, I mean successful, not in dust off my resume and how many degrees I have and how much money I made and what positions I held. I’m talking about the values you hope people talk about when they mention your name after you’re gone. What are they saying at your wake? Were you a good father, a good mother? Were you a good son or daughter? Were you a friend when it was hard to be a friend for someone? We don’t talk or think or write enough about that. That’s why I did the book.

Jordan Harbinger: [00:20:36] You mentioned that we overshare publicly and there’s a lack of self-reflection in private. Is that kind of what you mean? We’re like sharing our breakfast on social media, but maybe we’re not taking time out at night to ask the questions you just mentioned.

Adm. James Stavridis: [00:20:49] That’s precisely what I mean. And certainly, I am as guilty as anyone. You know, I have a Twitter account and I do a lot of media, and I think that the things I talk about are important. But one of the things I talk about is not all of that external world. It’s really about that inner voyage of character, trying to convince others to pause and think, “How do you measure the value of your life?” And frankly, at the end of the day, it’s not going to be in dollar terms or offices you were elected to or military positions you held or corporations you led. In the end, I think for most of us, we’ll measure our lives by the quality of our relationships, by the books we’ve read, by the stories we’ve told. In that sense, we certainly overshare on all the public things and the accomplishments, none of which are bad, but we underappreciate the degree to which contemplating character and what the moral and ethical decisions we make amount to. And I think this book is a small effort to move the conversation in that direction.

Jordan Harbinger: [00:21:59] Do you have a practice for this? I mean, meditation is trendy right now, for example, but do you come home or do you spend five minutes at the end of the day in your office thinking about the day at all?

Adm. James Stavridis: [00:22:10] I have a technique that revolves around single malt scotch. Do you know what that is?

Jordan Harbinger: [00:22:13] I do. I think I’m familiar with that. Yes.

Adm. James Stavridis: [00:22:16] So in all seriousness, I will come home at the end of the day and I don’t sort of consciously stop and lock the door and stare at the wall and try and settle my heartbeat, but I very much stop what I’m doing. I put down books and turn off the television set and just spend a moment sort of collecting my thoughts and then I will walk down. I’m very lucky in my life. I’m married to an absolutely wonderful woman, Laura, who I’ve been married to for 35-plus years. We’ve known each other since I was eight years old and she was three years old. So we really are childhood sweethearts — and not to go all Jerry Maguire on you — – but we do complete each other in a lot of wonderful ways, so I’m lucky. And we will settle down in the winter with a single malt scotch or maybe in the summer we’ll have a vodka gimlet and have a conversation and it will range widely over both current events and what’s happening with our two daughters and what’s happening in the world. That’s my sounding board. That’s my true north. And not everybody has a wonderful relationship like that, but even so, and even if you want to leave aside the vodka gimlets and the single malt scotches, it is not a bad idea, at the end of the day, don’t come home and flip on the cable news and ramp up with which side of the political argument you’re on.

[00:23:36] Stop and take a minute and just think about the events of the day and if I can push you one step further, instead of diving into a great streaming series on Netflix — which we ought to do from time to time — but also mix it up with reading a good novel, reading a good work of nonfiction. Let that filter into your thinking as well. All of that helps the voyage of character.

Jordan Harbinger: [00:23:46] What kind of scotch do you drink?

Adm. James Stavridis: [00:00:00] I like peaty, smoky — I like something a little bit on the heavier side. I also like a good Lagavulin. We could really turn this particular conversation very seriously into this. I have probably 50 different single malts in my scotch bin.

Jordan Harbinger: [00:24:20] Nice. I assume your office has a bunch of them. It seems like they’d be hard to keep on a ship because they would fall off the shelf.

Adm. James Stavridis: [00:24:26] Well, they would be really hard to keep on a ship because if you had a single malt scotch on a US Navy ship, you would be fired. You’d be cashiered. We don’t allow alcohol in our ships. We are the only Navy of all the global navies that do not allow alcohol, and I’ll tell you why — one word: prohibition. Back in the 1920s, it became illegal in the States to have alcohol and obviously, the US Navy was going to follow that. So we did, but then the Secretary of the Navy at the time, a man named Josephus Daniels, he thought, “You know what, we took alcohol off the ships. That prohibition, not a bad idea. It’s actually more professional not to have alcohol while you’re driving ships around.” So he decreed secretary of the Navy that we were not allowed to bring alcohol back in, and this is where you get the expression a cup of Joe — Josephus Daniels — because sailors couldn’t have their rum anymore. They had coffee. That’s where a cup of Joe comes from.

Jordan Harbinger: [00:25:26] I never knew that, and it seems like a good idea. I mean, you don’t really need any help driving a ship in doing something bad with it. In fact, I hate to embarrass you, but in the Panama Canal, you almost ran the ship  aground, which seems like something you shouldn’t do is if you want to succeed.

Adm. James Stavridis: [00:25:43] Indeed, you’ve got the story right. The canal slightly off. It was the Suez Canal. I actually made it through the Panama Canal without doing too much damage. But in the Suez Canal between the Mediterranean Sea and the Indian Ocean, the Red Sea, I did almost run the ship aground. I was saved by one of my junior officers who recognized that the captain — me — was making a bad navigational choice. He stood up and said, “Captain, I’ve got this,” and anchored the ship. I initially was pretty upset, and then we put a boat in the water and measured the water where I was driving the ship under the advice of an Egyptian pilot. Turns out he was entirely correct to stop the ship where he did. By the way, last thought, this young officer, he was a lieutenant at the time, is now a one-star admiral and very successful one. I’m very proud of him. His name is Rob Chadwick.

Jason DeFillippo: [00:26:37] You’re listening to The Jordan Harbinger Show with our guest, Admiral James Stavridis. We’ll be right back.

Jordan Harbinger: [00:26:43] This episode is sponsored in part by Skillshare. Skillshare is an online learning community with thousands of amazing classes covering dozens of creative and entrepreneurial skills. You can take classes and everything from creative writing, photography, design, productivity, business skills, all kinds of stuff in there. Literally, thousands, whether you’re returning to a long-time hobby or passion project, you’re challenging yourself to learn something new. Skillshare has got you covered. Because Jen is a nerd, she’s been taking excel classes, learning how to use complex formulas, logo creation, animation, productivity, coding, how to create websites, all of that stuff is in there. They’re of high quality. It’s not just like, well, I know when you look at some other courses, you’re like, wait, this is a course, or you’re filtering through spam, or there’s a weird upsell on those free videos sites. You’re not going to find that with Skillshare. Also, you can watch the lessons faster, like a faster speed, so you can plow through the course as quickly and you can watch it on your phone. You can watch it on your iPad, you can download them and watch them on airplanes. So that’s kind of nice. You can get the offline version and you can just plow through this stuff when you’re normally supposed to be sleeping on a plane. So Jason, tell them where they can get a deal on Skillshare.

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Jordan Harbinger: [00:28:16] This episode is also sponsored by DesignCrowd. Crowdsourcing is how busy people get stuff done in the 21st century. Thanks to DesignCrowd, you can focus on running your business while handing over the reins for your company’s logo, web design, t-shirt to a pool of over — and yes, we counted — 747,320 designers around the world. DesignCrowd crowdsources custom-work based on your specifications, and then you pick the design that you like best. It is that simple. Here are the details. Visit designcrowd.com/jordan post a brief describing what you want from the art you need. DesignCrowd invites over 747,320 designers from Sydney to San Francisco to respond within hours. You get your first designs. Over the course of three to 10 days, a typical project will get 60 to 100 maybe even more different pieces from designers around the world. You pick the design that you like best and approved the payment to the designer. In the event that you don’t like anything, DesignCrowd offers a money-back guarantee. Jason.

Jason DeFillippo: [00:29:13] Check out designcrowd.com/jordan. That’s D-E-S-I-G-N-C-R-O-W-D designcrowd.com/jordan for a special $100 VIP offer for our listeners or simply enter the discount code Jordan when posting a project on DesignCrowd.

[00:29:28] Thanks for listening and supporting the show. To learn more and get links to all the great discounts you just heard from our amazing sponsors, visit jordanharbinger.com/deals. Don’t forget, we have a worksheet for today’s episode so you can make sure you solidify your understanding of the key takeaways from Admiral Stavridis. That link is in the show notes at jordanharbinger.com/podcast. If you’d like some tips on how to subscribe to the show, just go to jordanharbinger.com/subscribe. Subscribing to the show is absolutely free. It just means that you get all of the latest episodes downloaded automatically to your podcast player so you don’t miss a single thing. And now back to our show with Admiral Stavridis.

Jordan Harbinger: [00:30:07] How often does it happen where a junior officer says, “I’m taking over because you’re making a massive mistake and it’s going to be a huge problem?”

Adm. James Stavridis: [00:30:13] Almost never, it never happened anywhere else in my career. It was a pretty dramatic moment on the bridge. If I had overruled him again, the crew would have done exactly what I said, but because he kind of had the guts to say, “This is the navigator. I have the con, all engines back.” At that moment, if I had overruled him and continued on, we would have gone  aground. I recognized in him such determination and such certainty about his position that it caused me as the leader on that bridge to think again, and thus it was quite effective on his part and I respect him deeply for doing so.

Jordan Harbinger: [00:30:51] Yeah, that must’ve been an interesting moment because —

Adm. James Stavridis: [00:30:54] Well, as we said in Top Gun, “Gutsy move Maverick!” Because if I had overruled him and I had been right, that would have been a very dark day in his career. So again, deep respect for him.

Jordan Harbinger: [00:31:08] Yeah. It seems like you had to both stop, then question your — first thing, you’ve got a question your ego and make sure that you’re not just trying to be right at the expense of a billion-dollar — or whatever — warship. And then also, it’s got to be a little embarrassing, because if that’s coming over the radio or the communication system, can’t a bunch of people hear that besides you two?

Adm. James Stavridis: [00:31:28] Absolutely. And by the way, the bridge of a Navy ship is not like two people up there. There’s like 25 people, several officers, not only a navigator, but an officer of the deck, a junior officer of the deck, lookouts, boatswain mate, navigators — it’s a packed classroom. Everyone was quite shocked, but at the same time, I looked over and said, “Okay, Rob, if you’re sure, let’s back it down.” We did it, and you know, at the end of the day, I think people respected Rob for his determination, and I think they respected the captain for backing up his very determined navigator.

Jordan Harbinger: [00:32:04] I’m sure. I think it says a lot about both of you, although I would imagine anybody standing there was like, “Nice knowing you, Rob.”

Adm. James Stavridis: [00:32:11] Exactly. And by the way, just to give you another little denouement to that story. So this is in, I don’t know, 1994 or 1995. So flash forward about 15 years. It’s September 11th, 2001. Rob and I are in the Pentagon. We’re on two completely different assignments. I’m a one-star admiral at this point. Rob is, I think he’s a lieutenant commander at this point. I called him up just on that morning, September 11, before anything fell apart. He was down in the Navy Intelligence Center. I said, “Hey Rob, why don’t you come up for a cup of coffee?” Because we’ve obviously maintained very close touch over the years. He said, “Sure, Captain.” He always called me Captain, even though I was an Admiral at this point. He said, “Sure, Captain, I’ll be up in a few minutes.” So, he came up to see me just as the airplane hit the Pentagon. He was arriving in my office, and because he came to my office and we were about 150 to 200 feet away from the impact point, we were still on the side of the Pentagon where the airplane hit. The airplane hit the second deck and went like a laser beam into the Navy Intelligence Center where Rob Chadwick was working. If he had not come up to have that cup of coffee with me, if I not randomly picked up the phone and called him, there would be no Rob Chadwick, there’d be no Admiral Chadwick. So our little joke is — it’s not that funny — but is that Rob Chadwick saved my career in the Suez Canal and I saved his life in the Pentagon. So we called it even.

Jordan Harbinger: [00:33:37] Wow. It’s very strange to think about those little things. I mean, he could have said, “Hang on, I need 10 more minutes.” Or, you know.

Adm. James Stavridis: [00:33:45] Exactly! And to this day, every year on September 11th, we connect and have a conversation and just catch up, and I couldn’t be prouder of him.

Jordan Harbinger: [00:33:54] This is a lesson in putting ego aside and trusting your junior officers. There’s a whole lot here. I mean, I think a lot of people might be thinking, “Cute story,” but really, there’s a lot here. It’s a lot for me, for example, and it’s not nearly the same gravity of the situation, but to listen to my producer when he says, “This is not going to work. This sounds terrible.” And it’s like, “Well, you know, they’re telling me for a reason,” because these guys don’t pull the fire alarm for no reason, ever.

Adm. James Stavridis: [00:34:18] That’s so right. And at the end of the day, as I look at the 10 admirals in Sailing True North that we profile, the ones who succeed are the ones who have the ability to sublimate their ego. And the greatest tool of character is maybe the simplest, and it’s the act of listening. Listening to others with real empathy, with real humility. That also is the gateway to humor. And all of those, I think are just at the heart of human character.

Jordan Harbinger: [00:34:47] Creativity and innovation as a leader can be stifled by success, because as you get more successful, you’re more afraid to fail once you’ve been successful. This kind of parallels, you know, being the captain of the ship — which by the way, I think I just realized from your story that captain is a position and not a rank, right?

Adm. James Stavridis: [00:35:03] You are exactly right. Every individual who is in charge of a ship is called, by tradition, captain. But we have lieutenants who are in charge of ships. We call them captain. We have lieutenant commanders on minesweepers who are in charge of the ship, we call them captain. At that time, I was a commander-in-charge of this destroyer, I was called captain. When you’re in charge of a cruiser, you actually are a captain. That is a captain’s job. But everyone in charge of a ship is called captain. And by the way, in some old sort of World War II movies, occasionally you think of this old TV series, McHale’s Navy, they called the captain of the ship skipper. We never do that.

Jordan Harbinger: [00:35:47] Yeah. That sounds really informal and goofy.

Adm. James Stavridis: [00:35:51] It is. I’ll tell you who uses it occasionally. I’ve heard naval aviators use it in talking about whoever is in charge of the squadron, sometimes you hear them called skipper. You’ll never hear that in the surface Navy.

Jordan Harbinger: [00:36:02] Creativity and innovation as a leader — going back to this — as you move up in the ranks or as move up in success, and this doesn’t necessarily have to just be on ships. I mean, it can be on any endeavor. You’ve got this sort of sunk cost that comes along with respect to reputation, right? Like, you don’t want to be wrong. You don’t want to take risk. How do you mitigate that? Let’s say someone listening to this is mid-career. They’re afraid to take a risk because they’re worried that maybe it’ll torpedo their chances at a promotion — all my nautical puns are unintended, I promise.

Adm. James Stavridis: [00:36:33] They’re well taken. And let me put a fact underneath it to emphasize your point. Chief of Naval Operations is the person in charge of the whole Navy. Some years ago, our Chief of Naval Operations brought in a consulting firm to survey all the admirals in the Navy, right? So we surveyed about 200 admirals, total. What we discovered was our admirals were excellent at decisiveness. They were excellent at taking care of their people. They were excellent at strategic planning. They had all these great skill sets where they were in kind of the upper quadrant when measured against business people anywhere else. Our admirals were in the bottom quadrant in terms of taking bureaucratic risk. They were afraid — to your point — to take an action that might make them stand out in a little way. And the irony of this occurred to me, which is that every one of these admirals came through a career of real danger, was in combat, was willing to fly an airplane in the middle of the night and landed on an aircraft carrier on a pitching deck, or take a destroyer alongside in a combat situation. They had all the physical courage in the world. They were willing to take risks with their lives operationally, but you put them behind a desk in a bureaucracy and they become the most conservative group out there. Because militaries are inherently hierarchical, they’re tradition-bound, and success has often equated to slowly, surely, foot by foot, putting yourself on the ladder to success.

[00:38:10] So there are built-in impediments in the military system. So Jordan, you asked, how do you overcome that? I think that’s really the salient point. And I’ll give you three answers. One is it’s a leadership requirement to find and promote innovators. Admiral Clark, the Chief of Naval Operations, I was describing who commissioned this survey, insisted after it came out that we started assessing officers on their report of fitness every year for innovation. So you’ve got to kind of push the innovators. Second is the organization needs to tell the stories of boldness and taking chances, and that can be both operational — John Paul Jones, bringing his ship alongside — but also those bureaucratic successes where someone has said, “You know, we’ve got to reorganize the entire Navy staff and change the way we’re doing business.” Procuring aircraft doesn’t sound real glamorous, but it required real courage to do that. And then third, and finally, we have to create pipelines to the top leaders that are kind of red cells, that are small, talented groups of people who have direct pipelines into our leaders to act as a spur. I formed such groups, both as Supreme Allied Commander at NATO and as Commander US Southern Command, and as a Strike Group Commander. You’ve got to rely on those junior officers who are not so high bound to help you and give you those good ideas. So, these are three approaches.

Jordan Harbinger: [00:39:41] Yeah, this all makes sense because I think it’s easy to say, “Hey, don’t get caught up in being conservative or not wanting to take risks.” And it’s another thing to say, “Well, the last guy before me, you know, he got reamed out for doing something that I would have probably done. So I’m just going to err on the side of caution and never step outside of my comfort zone.”

Adm. James Stavridis: [00:39:58] That’s exactly right. And another way to think of this is, when people fail, you have to give them second chances. And I’ve certainly failed multiple times. I’ll give you a practical example. When I was Commander of US Southern Command in charge of looking south — all military operations south of the United States. And it occurred to me — I think it’s still correct — we’re not going to go to war in Latin America. We’re not going to invade a country in Latin America. We’re sort of done with that Bay of Pigs mentality from the ’60s. What we are going to do is medical diplomacy. We’re going to do counter-narcotics. We’re going to do clinics, schools, and wells. We’re going to do all the soft power kinds of things. And so I reshaped the staff at US Southern Command — big staff, about a thousand people on the staff — overseeing tens of thousands of people in the south. We reshaped the staff very dramatically into one that would be focused not on warfighting, but on the soft power kinds of things I just mentioned.

[00:40:56] Well, it was a failure. And it was a failure for a number of reasons we don’t have to delve into, but I could easily, at that point, my career could’ve been ended because I took a big chance. I thought it was right to try and do this. Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates, great boss, one of the best bosses I ever had, was willing to say, “Hey, you gave it a good try. It didn’t work. It was a good effort.” He protected me. You’ve got to do that at every level as well.

Jordan Harbinger: [00:41:23] Yeah, I know you do strongly believe we need to create security by building bridges like education, humanitarian efforts. I think during one of your talks, you showed a huge hospital ship and said, “We have more than one of those,” which is great to see that we’re not just shooting at things. We’re also, you know, giving people their sight back.

Adm. James Stavridis: [00:41:42] I wouldn’t want to overstate it. Another way to think of this is: soft power without the ability to deliver hard power is no power. In other words, you need both. And the fallacy is often this discussion turns into an on-and-off switch — like a light switch. People think, “Okay, you’ve got a choice here. Either you’re going to be the soft power folks with the medical diplomacy, literacy training, hospital ships, clinic schools, and wells, rule of law, soft power, or you’re just going to be hard power and you’re going to launch tomahawk missiles all day long.” No, it’s not an on-and-off switch. It’s a rheostat. It’s like the dimmer in your dining room. You got to kind of dial it in and there are times when you need hard power. We’re not going to negotiate a solution with the Islamic State. We’re going to find them and imprison them, but so often the long game requires more than a little bit of the soft power side and a little bit of the hard power. When you combine those two together, now you’re creating something that some have called smart power. It’s that combination. That’s where I’ve tried to drive the problem in many cases.

Jordan Harbinger: [00:42:50] I know you’ve said the skill of being a great ship handler is never getting into a situation which requires great ship handling. On the other hand, you sometimes have to get into those situations, take risks that maybe lead you into those situations. Otherwise, you might never learn how to handle the ship in the first place.

Adm. James Stavridis: [00:43:06] Exactly right. The quote, by the way, is from Admiral Ernest King, who is this crusty World War II admiral. He was an admiral that I considered putting into Sailing True North, but didn’t end up with Admiral King. But I’ll tell you an Admiral who I think really personified that willingness to go into uncharted waters, relatively modern, late 20th century Admiral named Elmo Zumwalt, and he became the Chief of Naval Operations, the head of the Navy in the early ’70s, mid-’70s. When we were coming out of Vietnam and there was great — you’ll recall there was great racial unrest in the United States at the time — that became part of the armed services, all the protests against the war in Vietnam. Listen, in those days, people didn’t walk up to servicemen and say, “Thank you for your service.” They walked up to servicemen and said, “Why did you go to Vietnam?” It was a very different era. And Admiral Zumwalt, to his everlasting credit, tried to bring the Navy more in line with the society, and I think he largely succeeded in improving race relations, improving gender balance in the Navy. He really addressed those issues. He was handling the ship there in a way that was very difficult and challenging, and if he had played it completely safe and had never put the ship into that situation, we’d still be far behind in the armed forces.

Jordan Harbinger: [00:44:29] Essentially in the line of fire in the Pentagon on September 11th, how has that shaped your career philosophically and in terms of how you think about conflict?

Adm. James Stavridis: [00:44:39] Two reactions to it, and again, as I was talking, it was a beautiful morning and we were all just kind of having a relatively quiet September day before really turning to the work. You’ll recall, this is all quite early in the morning, and I was in a position where I actually glimpsed the airplane as it came hurtling in kind of off to my right side. I was on the outer so-called E-Ring of the Pentagon and caught a glimpse of it as it came in — huge smashing, crushing sound, instant fire, smoke. In the military, we’re all kind of trained as firefighters and rescue people, so we all kind of went toward the disaster zone, but it was cleared this was an out-of-control situation. We evacuated the building. And here’s the point. As I stumbled out of the Pentagon, I looked back at the Pentagon on fire, a huge chunk torn out of the center of it. What occurred to me was the irony of that moment as follows — I’d seen my share of combat in my, at that point, 30-plus years in the military, and yet the most dangerous moment in my life had just happened in the Pentagon where I was surrounded by powerful concrete walls. I was guarded by the strongest military on Earth. I was in the capital of the richest country on the planet. Was I safe? No. And what I took away from it was walls, in the end, are not going to be a guarantee of safety. We have to think the way our enemies do. They’re going to be a network. We have to create a network to combat them. And above all, Jordan, I recognized then at that moment how there would be surprising twists and turns that we could not predict. And so those are the two things that then guided the last 10 years of my career as I went on to very senior positions. This sense of: don’t be surprised that you’re going to be surprised. And the other is:  don’t put too much reliance on big, static defense systems. You’ve got to think like a network to defeat a network.

Jordan Harbinger: [00:46:44] A lot of the commanders and admirals that you profile in the book, especially some of these ancient ones like Themistocles and his battle against the Persians. A lot of these guys had some pretty dark sides — whether it was unmeasured courage like Sir Francis Drake, who kind of like, his courage went up to 11 and took him over the deep end. Or a lot of these guys, you know, they just smoked themselves or like had crazy ambition or with a bunch of different women and ruined their marriages. It really seems like these guys weren’t really balanced, a lot of them.

Adm. James Stavridis: [00:47:16] I tried very hard to show in these 10 admirals in Sailing True North that there is a wide spectrum to the human character. And that you can be both heroic and deeply flawed, and that the degree to which you achieve better character is the degree to which you evince some of the traits — I talk about it on the positive side — but yeah, you’re right to put your finger on Sir Francis Drake, who saves England leading the British fleet against the Spanish armada, but is known throughout Latin America as someone who killed, maimed, tortured, executed crew members. He was a slaver. In fact, the Pirates of the Caribbean ride at Disney World is a highly sanitized version of what Drake did in every port he went into: rapes, burning, stealing, looting — very dark side to his character.

[00:48:07] In a modern context, somebody like Admiral Hyman Rickover — the father of the nuclear Navy — he was highly capable, decisive, technologically brilliant, but he was incredibly difficult to work for. He was angry. He was constantly driving his staff. Today, we’d call him kind of a toxic leader. I don’t think he was at that level. And again, in both of those men, there’s a lot to admire, but there were also character lessons we should take away of things we want to avoid. And that is why, again, there’s just such a wide spectrum in the characters in Sailing True North.

Jordan Harbinger: [00:48:44] I know you’ve got a sign — or I’ve heard, actually, that you’ve got a sign in — is it in your office? It says, “Nothing important happens here.”

Adm. James Stavridis: [00:48:52] Yeah, I had that sign when I was the captain of a destroyer for the very first time. And you know, it’s kind of a slightly tongue-in-cheek point because, you know, a destroyer is important. You’ve got tomahawk missiles and guns and 400 sailors and it’s a billion-dollar ship and you’re on national missions. On the other hand, I put the sign there to remind me that, you know, I’m 36 years old. I’m a captain for the first time. I’m going to make mistakes. I need to be able to laugh at myself. I need to be able to tell my boss when I’ve got a failure. I need to keep things in perspective. And I think there’s a great lesson in that, and I’ve tried — there are times when I failed — but I’ve tried to maintain that sense that nothing truly important is going to happen here that you can’t have an influence on, that you can’t engage with acts of good character.

[00:49:48] And again, back to the sea and why this book is framed with these admirals, every one of these admirals — at one time or another and many times over for some of them — would walk up to the deck of a ship with a huge problem on their mind and look out there at that horizon again, where the sea meets the sky, you are looking at eternity. In the long throw of your life, the long throw of your career, don’t get wrapped around the axle. As we say in the Navy, keep your balance.

Jordan Harbinger: [00:50:15] How do you make decisions that might put people in danger? These very high stakes decisions. What principles do you try to follow when you weigh the component factors?

Adm. James Stavridis: [00:50:24] I begin always with clear-eyed assessment of my capabilities. You know, let’s kind of do this from the inside-out. So that’s assessing my own personal ability to make the decision. Do I really understand the facts here or do I need more advice? Expand that circle. Those around me, how confident am I in their abilities to assess? Expand the circle. What resources are at my disposal as I make this decision? Maybe I’m the captain of a destroyer. Maybe I am the commander of NATO with three million troops to draw on. What are the resources? Where are they? Where are they positioned? So you’re expanding that circle out from the innermost point of yourself. That’s kind of step one. Step two is to look across at what’s the problem and make sure you understand it clearly and make sure you’ve done the research and the understanding of the culture. Take the South China Sea. China claims it as a territorial sea. Why is that? We have to understand that if we’re going to go interact with the Chinese Navy in the South China Sea. So you have to look at your opponent. And then third, and finally, Jordan, as you prepare to make a decision, understand the temporal context. What is the timing? And so often our character does us a disservice here at times when some people’s character is timid and they will wait for the next fact and the next fact and the next fact. And some people are too impulsive, too decisive — they lunge at the ball far too early in the process. So I’d say the third thing I try and keep in mind is, what’s my timeline? Do I have to make this decision now? Do I have another day? Do I have another year? Put it in a temporal context. I think when you put those three things together, what’s on your side of the decision pattern, what is on the problem side of the decision pattern, and then lay it against a temporal context, that is where you can make, I think, the best set of decisions.

Jason DeFillippo: [00:52:27] You’re listening to The Jordan Harbinger Show with our guest, Admiral James Stavridis. We’ll be right back after this.

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[00:56:55] Thank you for listening and supporting the show. Your support of our advertisers keeps us on the air. To learn more and get links to all the great discounts you just heard, so you can check out those amazing sponsors, visit jordanharbinger.com/deals. And don’t forget the worksheet for today’s episode. That link is in the show notes at jordanharbinger.com/podcast. If you’re listening to us on the Overcast player, please click that little star next to the episode. We really appreciate it. And now for the conclusion of our episode with Admiral James Stavridis.

Jordan Harbinger: [00:57:26] it sounds in part what you wrote about Themistocles, where he says, “You’ve got to take emotion out of the equation. You’ve got to look at the facts as they exist,” and that’s got to be tricky.

Adm. James Stavridis: [00:57:35] And I would say in particular, another admiral who personifies that is Admiral Chester Nimitz. He’s actually fleet admiral, five-star admiral. We only do that in times of global war. He was a five-star admiral who took command of the Pacific fleet as it literally lay smoking after Pearl Harbor. He takes command a couple of days later. He doesn’t get to stand on the deck of a beautiful battleship in his choker whites, his beautiful white uniform. Why? Because the USS Arizona is at the bottom of Pearl Harbor. They are taking bodies out of it. Cordite is the predominant smell in the air. He takes command standing on the deck of a diesel submarine, a tiny little diesel submarine, and yet he squares his shoulders. Your point: he looks with clear-eyed vision at the facts, at what does he have? His battleships are destroyed. He still has carriers. He’s got diesel submarines. What does he have? He looks at the problem, the Japanese Empire. What are their capabilities? What are their weaknesses? Long-term: lack of fuel, strung out defending a huge ocean space with all these islands, and then he looks at a temporal aspect of this. Do I need to act immediately for some things? Yes. What needs to happen in a year, two years, three years, that kind of analysis. Themistocles did that very well.

[00:00:00] Alfred Thayer Mahan did that very well. Nimitz was renowned for this. Grace Hopper, who brought the Navy into the computer age, could do all three of those things to create new technologies for the Navy. That is a great skill set, and one that we try and illustrate in Sailing True North.

Jordan Harbinger: [00:59:14] You’ve got this picture of The Maine, or you had at least this picture of The Maine, which was sunk in Havana Harbor, supposedly by Spanish terrorists in Cuba, and this kind of epitomizes, or embodies, get the facts before you act. What does “Remember The Maine” mean to you?

Adm. James Stavridis: [00:59:29] Yeah. Every office I’ve ever had from about the time I was a commander in my first command on The Barry, I always had a picture of the USS Maine. It was sunk in Havana Harbor, as you said, February 15th, 1898, blown up. We immediately accused Spain and Spanish terrorists of blowing up The Maine, and so we launched ourselves, we flung ourselves into the Spanish-American War. This is what Teddy Roosevelt and the Rough Riders were saying as they went up San Juan Hill, “Remember The Maine.” We were going to take out those terrible Spanish terrorists. Well, 50 years after 1898, after World War II, we went down to Havana and we finally got around to salvaging the ship and truly understanding what happened. It blew up because of an internal boiler explosion, possibly an ammo explosion, but you can tell when an explosion comes from the inside of the ship, not the outside of the ship. So it was clear that it was not Spanish terrorists putting a mine on the side of the ship. This was an internal accident. Yet we launched ourselves into war. The lesson of The Maine and what I remember The Maine, is: Remember not to launch a war, to take a precipitous decision before you have all the facts. I remember The Maine, as in: Remember to honestly assess and not indulge yourself with propaganda. And I remember The Maine lastly — and I have a kind of a slight smile on my face here — remember, Admiral, your ship can blow up underneath you at any minute, so have a plan B. So yeah, that’s why Maine is on my wall even today in my office.

Jordan Harbinger: [01:01:14] In 2012, there was this anonymous complaint that had you under investigation for allegedly using your office for personal gain. Then they investigated it, it turned out to be complete BS. You’re found to be a model officer. How do you maintain composure when your integrity is under fire? Like, I would’ve been so pissed off.

Adm. James Stavridis: [01:01:31] Anybody in that situation becomes very angry and you have to very consciously steady yourself and say, “Look, somebody turned in this anonymous complaint. Presumably because they believed there was malfeasance here. Let’s investigate it.” I gathered my staff immediately and said, “I don’t want anybody getting angry here. I don’t want anybody trying to retaliate. We’re going to lay out the facts.” And I had the advantage of — I knew I had done nothing wrong. The tripping question was one where I went for official business to a gathering of 600 Frenchmen. I gave a speech in French, in uniform about NATO, and then immediately got on a jet and flew back to my headquarters. There was no question in my mind that this was entirely legitimate, but the wheels of these kinds of investigations grind slowly. They look at everything and it’s really a matter of self-control and telling yourself that this is an example of the greater good. And if you know you’re in the right, you can work your way through it.

Jordan Harbinger: [01:02:30] Why do you think that happened? Do you think somebody had an honest grievance, or was it kind of like, “I want this guy’s job. Let me see what I can do about that.”

Adm. James Stavridis: [01:02:38] I’d be speculating, but I’ll speculate for a minute. I think it could be a little bit of both. This was a period of time when there was a lot of jockeying about who was going to be the next Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, who was going to be the next Chief of Naval Operations. None of the individuals who were under consideration would have done this, obviously, but maybe someone who worked for them who thought, “You know, my boss would be really good in this job, and, you know that Stavridis, he’s a contender. And you know what? I heard this about that trip, or I’ve heard this and so I’m just going to throw in an anonymous complaint.” I’d say that’s a possibility and it is entirely possible as well, Jordan, that it was simply a well-meaning individual who felt that the trip was inappropriate for some particular reason, probably because they didn’t really understand the importance of why a NATO commander would go to France. And the reason is because we were trying to convince the French to come with us and send more troops into Afghanistan. I went to that dinner specifically so I could sit next to the Chief of the French Defense Forces who, after the dinner, sent an additional 400 troops to Afghanistan for us. But there is no way, if you’re a junior enlisted person, just seeing that, a trip on the schedule, you might think, “Yeah, it doesn’t look good to me,” and so, entirely possible it was completely pure. Either way, in the end, I’m glad it happened. It absolutely came out right for me. The Secretary of the Navy at the time said, as you quoted, “Admiral Stavridis is a model Naval officer who never used his office for personal gain.” I know that was true. Now, others know it’s true as well. It dispels any fog of suspicion, and I’m glad it happened.

Jordan Harbinger: [01:04:20] Yeah, you’ve got an even cleaner record now because somebody went through it with a fine-tooth comb. I know you’re not supposed to get angry and you told everybody not to get angry, but there had to be a moment where you just went to your office and like, smashed a coffee mug or something. I don’t know. How does someone in your position blow off steam when you can’t let anyone else see you do that?

Adm. James Stavridis: [01:04:37] Yeah. I think it’s back to single malt scotch. You go home, you give your wife a hug, and I’ll tell you the hero of this story is not grizzled old Admiral Jim Stavridis. It is Laura Stavridis, my wife, who had to deal with all the uncertainty that comes with that and her knowledge that I had done nothing wrong but then watching me get dragged through this experience. And I would come home and pull out a nice bottle of a — here’s another good single malt, second tip — Ardbeg, and have a very smoky scotch and tell Laura, “Hey, balanced, it’s going to come out okay.” And in the end, it does. But that’s where having a family, that’s where having close friends, that’s where having deep peer relationships can also help you out because several of my four-star peers were at pains to tell me, “Look, I know this is BS. You’re a good guy. This is going to come out okay.” Those peers, friends, family, crucial to developing character as we talk about in Sailing True North.

Jordan Harbinger: [01:05:36] In naval warfare, how much have tactics changed in the past because of a specific technology? And I’m wondering what that technology might be that’s really revolutionized everything. Because boats still float, but now we can reach them from anywhere with missiles. We can see them with satellites. We can track them with GPS.

Adm. James Stavridis: [01:05:51] I think there are probably three big tactical shifts in maritime history. One is pretty obvious. It’s the shift from sail, first to coal and then to liquid fuel, and then to nuclear power, so its propulsion, which becomes the ability to go anywhere you want, regardless of how the winds are blowing. You can refuel nuclear ships, don’t even need to refuel. So mastery of the 70 percent of the ocean surface, that is the oceans first was that shift away from sail, which had been predominant for 2,000 years to propulsion systems. So that’s one. The second great shift, I would say, was the advent of undersea warfare. The development of these lethal machines of death that prowled the bottom of the ocean. Nuclear submarines, they have changed the tactics. They’ve made it far less safe for our aircraft carriers. This is why battleships are gone today — the advent of submarines. The third great shift, I would argue, is happening right now in front of us. And it is the advent — you mentioned it a moment ago — of hypersonic cruise missiles, missiles that go five to seven to 10 times the speed of sound. There’s no real defense for them, and that combined with cyber and cyberattacks, I think are, again, changing maritime warfare.

[01:07:10] So that’s the story of warfare. It’s a constant struggle between offense and defense. There will be new technologies. You will get surprised, like when The Maine blows up or when 9/11 happens. There’ll be surprises ahead. I would predict they will come from cyber and from hypersonic cruise missiles.

Jordan Harbinger: [01:07:27] Interesting. Yeah. That’s fascinating. I know you’re kind of into the tech stuff. I think I saw this in a talk, that you’re interested in synthetic biology and how it affects foreign affairs. It seems like an unusual point of interest for a surface warfare officer.

Adm. James Stavridis: [01:07:41] Yeah. I often say three big muscle movements in this 21st century that, if you’re a historian 300 years from now and you’re writing the history of the 21st century, one is going to be biology and its human performance enhancement, human life extension, energy from biomass, new materials. There’ll be changes we don’t yet see. And I think those will start to happen in a very serious way. And the 10-year future and dust, there’s a lot of runway in the 21st century, which will focus on biology. The second big one is geopolitical, and it’s fashionable to say this will be the century about the rise of China. To some degree it will be, I think more so this will be a century about the rise of India because of demographics because it’s a democracy because it has English norms built into its laws and its structures. Look, India has many problems with education, sanitation, infrastructure, corruption, but there’s a lot of 21st century to go watch India demographics. And third and finally, I think maybe the most important muscle movement in this century is going to be not the rise of China, not the rise of India, maybe not even synthetic biology. I think it’s going to be the rise of women. I think that if you look at the acceleration in the position of women in our societies, it’s gaining speed. That’s a good thing because right now we have trillions of dollars of human capital parked on the sidelines. We’re better in some societies than in others, but over the course of this century, I think you’ll see women go into positions of leadership, they’ll go on many, many corporate boards, they’ll be elected to even more offices, they’ll run more and bigger companies. I think all, all of that will be very salutary and it will be a big part of this century as well.

Jordan Harbinger: [01:09:30] That’s interesting. Yeah. That’s something you don’t hear very often. Usually, people talk about China, maybe sometimes India, usually Internet 5G or something like that. But yeah, rarely do we talk about the human capital of women — or of anybody.

Adm. James Stavridis: [01:09:42] And that is really at the heart of the book, is this idea that for us to move forward on this voyage of all of us — together in this global society — we have got to harness both technology, geopolitical realities, women, and human capital. All of that is part of character, and that again, is part of the heart of the book.

Jordan Harbinger: [01:10:07] A lot of the admirals you profile in Sailing True North, once they’ve retired — if they actually made it that far — they kind of smoked themselves to death. They didn’t make it too long afterward. Maybe they lacked purpose in some way. You’re partially retired now. I mean, you seem to be keeping really busy, but do you worry about that at all? Maybe that’s why you’re popping out all these books.

Adm. James Stavridis: [01:10:25] Well, first of all, I wouldn’t say I’m even partially retired. I finished up as Dean of the Fletcher School. I think last time I was on with you, Jordan, about a year ago, and now I have a position in private equity, international finance, working with the Carlyle Group, and that’s been very fulfilling, kind of a distinct Act Three — Act One, my long, misspent youth in the Navy, Act Two, higher education. I just want to do something completely different and now I do international finance and private equity and I’m enjoying it. I, for one, believe you’ve got to keep sailing. And the minute you drop your anchor, the minute you take down the sail, the quality of your life diminishes. The size and scale of your life diminishes. And I still enjoy getting on an airplane and flying up to New York where I’m sitting right now and jumping over to NBC studio where I’m Chief International Analyst, doing commentary. I enjoy jumping on the radio with great shows like yours. I enjoy the travel that comes with working in private equity, looking at different companies around the world. I still very much am engaged and I won’t write off the potential of eventually going back into government in a senior job. I’ve always been in government as a military officer. I’d be open to the challenge of coming into government, not as an elected official, but as an appointed position to support a president in some important endeavor in the future.

Jordan Harbinger: [01:11:49] Well, thank you so much, Admiral, for joining us today, and thank you for your service to the nation. It’s been an honor speaking with you.

Adm. James Stavridis: [01:11:55] Thank you, Jordan. It’s my honor as well, and I want to close with one last thought, which is I appreciate it always when people say thank you for your service — means the world to military people. Listen, there are so many ways to serve this country — our military certainly, our diplomats, our CIA officers, our police, our firemen, our EMTs, nurses in inner-city clinics, school teachers in rural South Carolina, making $27,000 a year teaching a packed classroom. Do you think they’re serving the country? I do. Peace Corps volunteers. How about our journalists who take a flip phone, a put on a badly fitted helmet and a flak jacket that isn’t going to work and go into combat. Like my friend Richard Engel at NBC news. Do you think they’re serving the country? I do. And there are a lot of ways to serve the country. So Jordan, thank you for thanking me for my service, but I just want to take a moment to all who are serving the country in some way across all the spectrum I mentioned, in many I don’t have time, thank you for your service as well.

Jordan Harbinger: [01:12:57] Admiral James Stavridis. Thank you so much. This was a really fun conversation. I really, really did enjoy it and I actually did an episode a few weeks ago on synthetic biology, how we can print DNA and how that might end up printing diseases and kill everyone. Maybe I’ll shoot that over to Pauline, I know you have plenty of things to do, but —

Adm. James Stavridis: [01:13:14] No, no. I would love to listen to that and also I hope somewhere in there they have figured out how people like me with male pattern baldness can recover our hairlines. That’s going to be one of the great achievements of the 21st century.

Jordan Harbinger: [01:13:30] Yeah. We’ll print you some hair as soon as we can.

Adm. James Stavridis: [01:13:33] Exactly. Thank you.

Jordan Harbinger: [01:13:34] Thank you. Big thank you to Admiral James Stavridis. The book is called Sailing True North. Links to his books and everything else will be in the show notes. There are also worksheets for each episode, including this one, so you can review what you’ve learned from Admiral Stavridis. That’s at jordanharbinger.com in the show notes. We’ve also got transcripts for each episode and those can be found in the show notes as well.

[01:13:58] We’re teaching you how to connect with great people and manage relationships using systems and tiny habits over at Six-Minute Networking. That’s our free networking class. That’s at jordanharbinger.com/course and don’t wait. Don’t try to do it later. You’ve got to dig the well before you get thirsty. Once you need relationships and you’re trying to leverage them, then you’re too late to create them. Don’t procrastinate. Don’t stagnate. Just get it done. It’s a few minutes a day. I wish I knew this stuff 20 years ago. This is not fluff. It is crucial. Don’t wait until you get your website done your business plan done, none of that is first. the networking stuff is first. It takes freaking six minutes a day. Do it all for free at jordanharbinger.com/course. And by the way, most of the guests on the show, they subscribe to the course and the newsletter. So come join us and you’ll be in smart company. Speaking of building relationships, you can always reach out and follow me on social. I’m at @JordanHarbinger on both Twitter and Instagram.

[01:14:18] This show is created in association with PodcastOne. This episode is produced by Jen Harbinger and Jason DeFillippo, and edited by Jase Sanderson, show notes and worksheets are by Robert Fogarty, music by Evan Viola. I’m your host Jordan Harbinger. Our advice and opinions, and those of our guests are their own. And yeah, I’m a lawyer, but I’m not your lawyer, so do your own research before implementing anything you hear on the show. And remember, we rise by lifting others. The fee for this show is that you share it with friends when you find something useful or interesting, which should be in every episode. Please share the show with those you love, and even those you don’t. In the meantime, do your best to apply what you hear on the show so you can live what you listen and we’ll see you next time.

[01:15:30] Check out Business Casual. It’s a new podcast by Morning Brew. Every week host Kinsey Grant sits down with the biggest names in business to talk about the biggest stories in business. They’ve been diving into topics like the future of the flexible workspace, what’s actually happening with the trade war, and whether or not we should break up big tech. This week, they’re tackling the streaming wars with none other than Matthew Ball. Subscribe to Business Casual wherever you listen to podcasts.


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