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Former CNO Mullen Talks Leadership, National Security Challenges in a Post-COVID-19 World

Secretary of the Navy Guest Lecture with retired Navy Adm. Mike Mullen

Former CNO Mullen Talks Leadership, National Security Challenges in a Post-COVID-19 World

Years of leadership experience as a Naval officer, culminating as the Navy's Chief of Naval Operations then as the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, retired Navy Adm. Mike Mullen offered his views on requirements of leaders and national security issues in the post-COVID-19 world during the Naval Postgraduate School’s (NPS) first virtual Secretary of the Navy Guest Lecture (SGL), May 19.

“We live now in a tremendous time of great uncertainty and even greater ambiguity,” said Mullen. “We're facing and will face a completely new, and in many ways unknown, reality where nothing will be the same in the future.”

Just as Mullen witnessed how the world changed following the 9/11 attacks, he acknowledged that the COVID-19 pandemic will require a new change in leadership thinking and action.

“History has shown, in my perspective of having been through two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, that you need different leaders for different times,” continued Mullen. “I fundamentally believe that there are some characteristics of what we'll need for leaders in the future. It is a level of boldness that oftentimes we don't see. Leaders with big ideas. Leaders who are deep thinkers, innovators, change agents, and ethical leaders.”

“I think winning in the future is best achieved by developing what's between our two ears,” continued Mullen. “That aspect of thinking—the education, the development, and the challenge of debate—is hugely important for America. It's our strategic advantage in the military. I would argue that for those who are able to do that and lead in that regard, it's a tremendous professional strategic advantage for you individually. I think leaders will continue to be decisive and determinative in the outcomes of our future for sure.”

Mullen noted that COVID-19 put America at a tipping point as the pandemic gravely affects lives and livelihoods. He said that getting America back will take leaders with solid values —values that are well-known among the audience listening to the virtual SGL.

“It's accountability,” said Mullen. “It's integrity. It's courage. It's equality. It's ethical behavior. It's having a moral compass. It's discipline. Freedom and democracy, those are the cornerstones for us as a country and as a military. I would argue that as we move ahead in this very confusing and unknown space, hewing to those values will be critical to generating the right kind of outcome.”

While the fight against COVID-19 is a difficult one, Mullen cautioned the audience about winning at all costs.

“We're in a brand-new fight,” said Mullen. “A fight for the long-term health and survival of the country. I'm not just talking about those of us who wear the uniform. I would keep that in mind and then I would tie that back to what I call bold and courageous decisions to make sure we're not fighting the last fight.”

“We must listen, learn and lead,” he stressed.

Seven NPS students posed questions to Mullen ranging from geo-political relations to economic concerns to leadership challenges. Lieutenant Ross Spinelli asked about potential US/China conflict, and Mullen said that part of the long-term leadership strategy may include re-evaluating current relations with China. 

“If our two economies can’t be made to work together then I’m not very optimistic at all. I’m very concerned about instability in that part of the world.”  Mullen went on to say, “There is going to be some significant backlash against China as result of COVID yet we’ve got to figure how to live together… the engagement between leaders is critical.”

A distinguished graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy and NPS, Mullen recapped and emphasized the urgent need for quality education across the country and, particularly, for military leaders. Critical thinking and willingness to challenge assumptions are essential attributes for leaders, Mullen remarked as he recalled his NPS learning experience. 

“Probably more than anything else studying at that level it gave me tools and taught me how to frame problems,” he said.

Mullen said he has great hope in the leaders studying at NPS and called upon them to step-up.  “It's going to be incredibly challenging, particularly in the kind of drastically changed environment that we find ourselves right now in with COVID-19,” said Mullen. “You also need to take care of yourself, your family, and each other as we move into this completely new era of national security across the board.”

You can watch Mullen’s complete presentation and Q&A on the NPS YouTube channel.

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