How to Be an Ethical Leader

In his new book, former Fletcher dean James Stavridis reflects on the lives of ten admirals—and what they teach us about steering an ethical course
Man standing front of row of flags. In his new book, former Fletcher dean James Stavridis reflects on the lives of ten admirals—and what they teach us about steering an ethical course
“Leadership is the big door of influencing others, but that big door swings on a tiny hinge: character,” says James Stavridis, F83, F84. Photo: Kelvin Ma
November 18, 2019

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As the former supreme allied commander of NATO, Fletcher School Dean Emeritus James Stavridis, F83, F84, is an accomplished leader with a long resume of achievements. Yet in his new book he focuses on a more inner journey that he says parallels and guides his public career: the effort to live an ethical life.

The “true test of our character is what we do when no one is watching,” Stavridis writes in the preface of Sailing True North: Ten Admirals and the Voyage of Character. “Character is at its heart the ability to lead the inner self toward what is just and right.”

In the book, Stavridis tells the stories of ten admirals, from Greece, China, the United Kingdom, and the United States, considering the lessons of character we can learn from their experiences. A retired four-star U.S. Navy admiral himself, Stavridis also reflects on his own career in a concluding chapter.

Stavridis served as dean of The Fletcher School from 2013 to 2018. He is an operating executive of The Carlyle Group, an international private equity firm, as well as a monthly columnist for Time magazine and chief international security analyst for NBC News.

Tufts Now spoke with Stavridis about how character informs leadership, the admiral he admires the most of those in the book, and the career challenge that led him to be a more empathetic leader.

Tufts Now: Sailing True North touches on both character and leadership. What is the difference between the two?

James Stavridis: Leadership is the big door of influencing others, but that big door swings on a tiny hinge: character. Character is about how we lead ourselves, and where we find the inner qualities of creativity, resilience, honesty, empathy, and humor. We are awash in books on leadership, but in need of books about character, so I wrote Sailing True North.

In your book, you say “we are witnessing the slow death of character.” What are the causes and consequences of that decline—and what can be done to combat it?

The acceleration of information and the utter transparency of our society—driven by technological “improvements”—causes us to overshare publicly and under-reflect privately about the real meaning of our lives. We are attached to the breathless twenty-four-hour news cycle and grab information in nearly meaningless snapshots. Fewer people are willing to stop, read, and learn before they begin communicating. Leadership by Tweet is not the same as leadership through character.

You start the book with the story of Themistocles, the Athenian admiral who won a pivotal battle in 480 B.C. against the Persians, despite the Greeks being outnumbered by five to one. What does his example have to teach us about character? 

He was a brilliant communicator and was capable of powerful and convincing rhetoric. But he was undone by arrogance. After his successful victory over the Persians, he was ultimately exiled by the Athenians, became a turncoat, and ended his life in the service of the Persian emperor. His lesson for us is that for all our gifts and achievements, we need the leavening effect of humility. Without humility and empathy, we are headed for a “Greek tragedy.”

Could you tell us about another admiral from the book whose story has particular relevance today?

All of the ten admirals in Sailing True North have lessons for us today, but the one I particularly point to is Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz. He took command of the Pacific Fleet just days after the attack on Pearl Harbor, when it was a smoking ruin in front of him. He then squared his shoulders, built a team, and methodically destroyed the Japanese empire. It is an impressive tale of determination and true grit. He also did it all without raising his voice, demeaning a subordinate, or engaging his ego. Of all the admirals in the book, he is the one I admire most.

The admirals you include are not flawless role models—in fact, some of their stories read like cautionary tales. Why is that?

The full range of human character is on display in Sailing True North. A heroic victor like Vice Admiral Lord Nelson of the UK was also an adulterer who fathered a child out of wedlock. Themistocles wins an existential victory, but ends up exiled for arrogance. Hyman Rickover pulls the Navy into the nuclear age, but is a harsh, toxic leader who constantly demeans his subordinates. None of us is perfect—far from it—but the idea in the book is to show those shades of character.

In your final chapter, you reflect on your own career and the challenges of character—for example, how your drive to innovate has sometimes succeeded and sometimes been met with resistance, or how leading NATO strengthened your empathy for other nations within the alliance. Could you share a story in which you failed to live up to your own ideals, and what you learned from that?

When I was a four-star admiral at U.S. Southern Command, in charge of all U.S. military forces south of the U.S. in Latin America and the Caribbean, I decided to fundamentally change the structure of the command. I did so without much input from my subordinates, acting from ego more than empathy—sure that I knew best.

We made the change over a difficult two-year period, but my successor promptly reversed it all. I believe if I had spent more time and won over the staff—using the character tools of creativity and empathy—it might have succeeded. I learned from that, and when I got to NATO, I was a far more empathetic leader, which is critical in a multinational alliance.

You were vetted by the Hillary Clinton campaign as a possible vice-presidential candidate in 2016, and subsequently met with President-elect Trump as a possible candidate for a cabinet-level appointment. As we look toward the 2020 presidential election, what political role would you like to play?

I am always open to opportunities to serve the nation and would strongly consider a position in another administration. I am a registered Independent—always have been—and a centrist without political ambition, but willing to serve again.

I’ll close by saying one of the most important acts of service anyone can do is educating others. When you see a teacher next, tell them, “Thank you for your service.” I am proud that as dean at The Fletcher School, I could serve our faculty as they educated the next generation of global leaders. Character and service are deeply intertwined. 

Heather Stephenson may be reached at heather.stephenson@tufts.edu.

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