Admiral James Stavridis is an Operating Executive of The Carlyle Group, following five years as the 12th Dean of The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. A retired 4-star officer in the U.S. Navy, he led the NATO Alliance in global operations from 2009 to 2013 as Supreme Allied Commander with responsibility for Afghanistan, Libya, the Balkans, Syria, counter piracy, and cyber security. He also served as Commander of U.S. Southern Command, with responsibility for all military operations in Latin America from 2006-2009. He earned more than 50 medals, including 28 from foreign nations in his 37-year military career.
Earlier in his military career he commanded the top ship in the Atlantic Fleet, winning the Battenberg Cup, as well as a squadron of destroyers and a carrier strike group – all in combat. In 2016, he was vetted for Vice President by Hillary Clinton and subsequently invited to Trump Tower to discuss a cabinet position in the Trump Administration.
Admiral Stavridis earned a PhD in international relations and has published nine books and hundreds of articles in leading journals around the world. His 2012 TED talk on global security has close to one million views. Admiral Stavridis is a monthly columnist for TIME Magazine and Chief International Security Analyst for NBC News, and has tens of thousands of connections on the social networks.
How has failure or apparent failure set you up for later success?
In the mid-1990s, I was captain in USS BARRY (DDG-52), then a brand-new destroyer. We were sailing along the waterfront, winning all sorts of awards. Then, suddenly, we flunked an OPPE. We were towed back into port, adjudged “unsafe to steam.” I truly thought I’d get relieved for cause and went home and told my wife that. The next day three things happened. First, my Commodore gave me a second chance and allowed us to do another attempt at the inspection (with a max grad of SAT allowed, knocking us out of the Battle E). Second, my crew rallied around me all day, saying, “don’t worry captain, we’ve got this.” And third, my peers on the waterfront, other COs, called and said, “tough day, Jim. What can I do to help? Do you need parts, sailors, expertise?” I learned the value of giving second chances; how you reap what you sow with your crew; and how important your peer network is going to be. Pretty good lessons.
Are there any quotes you think of often or live your life by?
Nikos Kazantzakis, the Greek poet and author of “Zorba the Greek,” has carved on his tombstone: “I want nothing. I fear nothing. I am free.” What I take from that is we should not allow our fears or our desires to guide us, but rather our belief in what is right. I have a box carved with that saying that holds some items that are precious to me from my Navy career (rusty bolts from my tour as a carrier engineer, an old firing key from a disused system on a destroyer, a photograph or two). They remind me to value the things that matter, and not to take counsel of my fears.
What is the first thing you do when you get up in the morning? Do you have a morning routine?
Normally I’ll rise early around 0600 and do some writing, either on a book (currently working on a book called “The Sailor’s Bookshelf: 50 Books To Know the Sea”) or my columns for Bloomberg or TIME. By 0700, I want input, and I’m a reader, so I skim the Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, and New York Times – the latter two on line, the first in paper form. Black coffee, of course. I’m not a breakfast eater, so very quickly I turn to the work of the day, and start chopping down the emails that have accumulated overnight, many of them from Europe. Normally I will do the emails while on an elliptical or if the weather is nice while walking outside. By 0800, I’ll flip through CNN, Fox, and MSNBC to get a sense of what each network is flogging. Normally by 0900, these days I’m on Zoom or other platforms with my work in private equity at The Carlyle Group. I try to get a serious workout, normally tennis, squash, or pickleball (it’s sweeping the planet) around mid-day or early afternoon.
What career advice would you give a smart and driven young SWO? What advice should they ignore?
Read, read, read. Have a plan about what you want to read, deep dives. Read the “Economist” magazine every week and a newspaper every day. Try to read one other book weekly, alternating fiction and non-fiction. For ideas go to various reading lists (see “The Leader’s Bookshelf,” a list I’ve compiled of 500 books on leadership, for example).
Work out – stay in exceptional shape. Follow up on any medical issues aggressively. Fitness gives you huge energy boosts and helps keep things in perspective.
Get to DC for at least one tour in your first ten years. Learn how the Pentagon runs.
Pay attention to feedback from your peers and encourage it. No one knows you better.
Never lose your temper or raise your voice. Never. Make that a rule in any organization your run, no matter how small.
Build teams and give credit to others.
What is the book you’ve given most as a gift and why?
“To Kill a Mockingbird,” by Harper Lee. It is a brilliant story of racial injustice, a portrait in Atticus Finch of the deepest and most costly type of integrity, and finally as superb coming-of-age novel about a young woman’s voyage of life. Immodestly, I will admit to giving away a lot of copies of “Sea Power: The History and Geopolitics of the World’s Oceans,” a book I wrote in 2017 into which I poured a lot of my life at sea and my sense of the world. The “characters” in the book are the world’s oceans.
How do you set priorities and manage your time?
I try to devote 25% of my time to “personnel” issues, at this point in my life that is mentoring many wonderful young people, including, of course, my family
I try to put about 25% of the time into “innovation,” thinking up new ideas and encouraging them. This is a large part of my role in private equity, where I focus on aerospace and defense, as well as cybersecurity issues. This is the technology part of the portfolio.
Roughly 25% into communications – my books, articles / columns, NBC contract as Chief International Analyst, emails, keeping up connections around the world.
Final 25% is kind of everything else, to include working out, reading, recreation.
Naturally there is overlap between these, and I track it by using my calendar. Many people have an idea that they are devoting X% of their time to activity Y, but when they actually look at the metrics on their calendars, they are failing. Calendar discipline is important.
What is your most effective daily habit?
Reading and working out. I cannot imagine a day without at least an hour for each.
How do you define success?
In the happiness and success of my wife and children. In the vitality and reception of my ideas as they are launched in the world. And whether I can still hit a good topspin backhand cross-court under match pressure, like I did on the tennis team at Annapolis, 1.2 million years ago.