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Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life

Global Leadership in a Complex World

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

As part of the Tisch College Distinguished Speaker Series, Admiral James Stavridis shared his thoughts on leadership and on current crises around the world.

Long before he was an Admiral or a Dean—before he led American and allied forces around the world and led the nation’s oldest graduate school of international affairs— James Stavridis was a young graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy who yearned to do more than sail the high seas.

“I was a very good mariner and a very good engineer,” says Stavridis. “I could launch a Tomahawk missile all day long, but I could not launch an idea to save my life.”

Seeking to rectify that, Stavridis planned to resign his commission and go to law school. Instead, due to a series of fortuitous circumstances, he stayed in the Navy and attended the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, where he launched his share of fine ideas and a sterling military career that would see him rise to the rank of four-star Admiral and the role of NATO Supreme Allied Commander (SACEUR).

Last year, Admiral Stavridis returned to the Fletcher School as its dean. And last month, as part of the Tisch College Distinguished Speaker Series, he spoke to students and other members of the Tufts community about the most pressing issues facing our world and the lessons on leadership he gleaned from nearly 40 years serving his country.

How to Lead

A consummate leader, Admiral Stavridis commanded sailors on aircraft carriers, cruisers, and destroyers in faraway corners of the world like Haiti, Bosnia, and the Persian Gulf. Later, he was responsible for all U.S. military operations in Central and South America as commander of the United States Southern Command, and from 2009 to 2013 he led the U.S. European Command as well as NATO operations worldwide.

His experience in some of the world’s most important military leadership roles has given Admiral Stavridis invaluable on perspective on what it takes to be an effective leader.

“I’d say there are three tactical things that good leaders do really well.” he said. “One is collaborate: work together and build teams.

“The second is communicate … particularly in 21st century leadership when there’s an expectation of explanation, of rationalization, of telling why we’re doing this, I’d say that second thing is communication.

“And the third is innovate. We expect our leaders to give us new ideas or, better yet, to challenge us as a group to find new ideas.”

Beyond those core tactical abilities a good leader should strive to master, however, Admiral Stavridis offered two underlying qualities that are even more foundational.

“I think all leadership has one bedrock principle, which is integrity and honesty,” he said. That’s got to be the base, and right above that another real base in leadership is that of compassion and caring for those for whom you’re charged with responsibility.”

The World’s Looming Crises

That sense of responsibility, not just for the men and women under his charge but for the world he spent his career trying to make safer, also informs Admiral Stavridis’ views on today’s most pressing global issues. And while he is concerned with Russia, ISIS, North Korea, and many other geopolitical foes and challenges, the things that keep him up at night are even more complex and difficult.

“I think the greatest challenge the world faces is poverty and what goes along with poverty: inequality,” said Stavridis. “Those two things are creating an enormous amount of growing discontent, particularly in a world where everybody gets to see everybody else’s circumstances.”

A close second on his list of concerns: the environment.

“I’m very concerned about what’s happening to the world’s oceans,” he said. “The acidification of the oceans, rising sea levels, temperatures rising… those are things that, if we don’t get ahead of them, we can’t come back.”

Admiral Stavridis also cited cyberwarfare and pandemics as insidious challenges to grapple with in this still-new century, and ones that he considers the United States and the world ill-prepared for.

That, in large part, was the impetus behind To Know the World, a new strategic plan for the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy that focuses especially on five key areas: bio, the cyber world, Africa, women and gender, and social networks.

Making a Difference

“To know the world” is not just the name of Fletcher’s strategic plan, but also its Dean’s counsel to students and to all who aspire to engage with the tough issues he identified or any others.

“My advice for those people who are just starting this trajectory in their lives and careers is: get out in the world, be an international citizen, come back to the Fletcher School, and really have a life and career in the world,” he said. “There’s nothing more fulfilling.”

In so saying, Admiral Stavridis also highlighted the link between Tisch College and Fletcher; two institutions at Tufts that share a similar mission and values of engaging with the world and empowering active citizens to effect change.

“Tisch is about creating global citizens who care about those issues and want to be involved in them, and Fletcher is about taking those kinds of citizens and giving them tools to go out and be part of the world,” he said, adding that the vexing nature of today’s problems should not be a dissuasive.

“I think that, even as a single person, you can be a huge force.”