From across various time zones in Washington D.C., Ottawa, London, Brussels and Canberra, the McCain Institute National Security & Counterterrorism fellows convened on April 1 for a special Zoom session with Admiral William H. McRaven on leadership under crisis conditions and personal resilience during times of adversity. McRaven, the former Navy SEAL commander who oversaw the operations that resulted in the death of Osama bin Laden and the capture of Saddam Hussein, drew on his 37 years of his experience in the U.S. military to offer a range of lessons on leadership.
Citing Prussian military theorist Carl von Clausewitz’s adage that “everything is very simple in war, but the simplest thing is difficult,” McRaven stressed that “everything about leadership is tough.” Great leaders, he told the fellows, understand the importance of fostering teamwork, setting high standards and holding people accountable, communicating “up and down the line,” taking ownership of problems, being “brutally honest” while still inspiring hope, and remaining the calmest person in the room at all times. “Don’t bemoan anything,” he advised. “Always be upbeat, have a sense of humor, and whatever problems you have, leave them outside the door.”
In the wake of the COVID-19 crisis, fellows described the discussion as especially timely and meaningful. “Hearing from Admiral McRaven was an incredible opportunity in its own right, but resonated even more strongly now as we all reflect on the importance of leadership during crisis,” said Anna Wallis Dietrich, an analyst at the National Counterterrorism Center and a member of the inaugural fellowship class. “His perspectives on maintaining transparency, owning failure, and building strong teams were particularly poignant in this moment. The session was easily the highlight of my quarantine.”