Admiral Michael Mullen: Legacy of Integrity
By Jonathan Mills
Just two months after then-Lt. Michael Mullen took his first command, he crashed the USS Noxubee, a gasoline tanker with 100 sailors aboard, into a buoy along the Thimble Shoals Channel in the lower Chesapeake Bay—a massive failure, a misjudgment that was “attributed to his youth and lack of experience.”
If his 48-year military career were a collection of books on a shelf, it would be held together by two sturdy brass bookends: the first would be inscribed at the base with “1973: USS Noxubee,” marking both his failure and birth as a leader. The other would be inscribed with “2010: Testimony before the U.S. Senate,” representing the success and legacy of one of the most impactful changes to the landscape of the American military—and American culture—in decades: the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”
Admiral Mullen began his military career as a class of ‘68 graduate of the Naval Academy at age 21, and only 5 years later found himself in command of the USS Noxubee. When most of his peers were looking for jobs that would allow them to quietly move up in rank, Admiral Mullen sought a position where he could employ his leadership skills in a high-risk environment.
Not a product of a family with infinite means, Admiral Mullen’s father had been a Hollywood press agent, representing the likes of Julie Andrews and Anthony Quinn. On a basketball scholarship to the Naval Academy, his academic career was not fantastic, graduating in the bottom third of his class. During an interview with David Letterman, he confessed he had gotten 115 demerits during his senior year at the Academy, just 35 demerits short of being booted.
Perhaps this is why he felt the need to move his career into high-gear…wanting to set himself apart…defining himself by what he could accomplish, not by what he had accomplished, or hadn’t accomplished so far.
He was given that opportunity in 1973, the year of that fated buoy incident. Only, he was once again met with disappointment, receiving a poor evaluation as a result of the crash, an evaluation that stayed on his record for years and prevented him from moving up as quickly as he had hoped.
In an interview with OutServe Magazine, his first interview since retiring, Admiral Mullen reflected on this low point in his life. “Crashing into that buoy put a large dent into my professional career, raising a real question about whether I would even be able to stay in the Navy. I was intent on recovering, and that took about 11 years of hard work to get back on track. I also had senior officers who kept that mistake from ending my career. What the incident taught me is that it is often how and what we do when we fail that really marks us as a leader. Getting back up, dusting myself off and learning from my mistakes were all a large part of growing to be the leader I became. We are all human; we all fail; the real mark of who we are as leaders becomes visible when we determine what we will do when we fail—how we will handle that failure.”
This scourge on his military career marked the birth of Admiral Mullen as a leader. It was from this experience he grew into the person who would eventually become the most senior ranking military leader of the most powerful military in the world. “My duty on the USS Noxubee was as the commanding officer–the Captain,” said Admiral Mullen. “What I took away from my tour on Noxubee was how much I loved command at sea. I developed a mixture of confidence and humility that stayed with me for the rest of my career, right through my time as chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff.”
The explanation given on his evaluation for cause of the crash was, “misjudgment of the ship’s characteristics and lack of appreciation for the prevailing tide/current conditions…this misjudgment may be attributed to his youth and lack of experience.”
Those words surely haunted Admiral Mullen for some time following the incident, but it is apparent these words have also been guiding principles in how he has chosen to lead since then. He has consistently sought to educate himself on issues he doesn’t fully understand, recognizing that it is impossible to lead if you don’t have a firm grasp on the realities of the situation at hand.
In a 2012 interview with Harvard Business Review, Admiral Mullen explained, “You have these massive staffs who oftentimes just want to keep you happy and don’t like bringing bad news. Understanding the gap between what we’re trying to do and what we’re actually executing on is a real challenge…But it’s always been my style to get close to what we call the pointed end in war—to really see what we’re asking our men and women to do.”
This style of leadership is what helped to bring about one of the most important achievements during his tenure as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the repeal of the discriminatory “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” (DADT) policy. In an interview with DiversityInc CEO Luke Visconti, Admiral Mullen discussed his thought process which resulted from a similar civil rights movement of the 1950s and 60s, though he has never gone so far as to specifically draw a parallel between that and the current national debate over the equality of LGBT men and women.
“When I was a midshipman at the Naval Academy…I finished my first year there in the summer of 1965. I came home on leave after a cruise. I lived about 20 miles from Watts in Los Angeles. I literally watched Watts burn [in the civil-rights riot] not very far from where I lived, but I knew very little about it. It could have been a place far, far away. I mean, that was a really signature moment for me; something was going on but I didn’t understand. I was 19 years old at the time, but I do remember that and it pushed me in a direction to find out a whole lot more about what was going on…I had no clue about how people lived, about what their challenges were, about the prejudices that existed at the time. It really did open up an area that I knew I needed to know more about.”
misjudgment of the ship’s characteristics and lack of appreciation for the prevailing tide/current conditions.
Once again, the words that had left an indelible impression on the Admiral shaped the way he responded to newly elected President Obama’s direction that the military address the inequality of LGBT service members and determine a path to DADT repeal. On background, one of his closest advisors who had worked with him for several years said, “[DADT] was something that he experienced as a commanding officer moving up through the military, when he had to discharge gay and lesbian service members…he didn’t have a voice in the process, he didn’t have the ability or the right to challenge the law, it was his obligation to follow it without question. As years went on, it began to bother him that he was losing good sailors due to the law. Not long after he became Chairman, he knew there was going to be an election. So, early on, about a year and half before election, he began to start to think through it…‘I am the senior military advisor, what if we have a new president who wants to take a look at this law? What am I going to tell him? What is my advice?’”
Admiral Mullen put together a team to work through all the issues of administration transition. “He wanted to make sure the military would be able to operate globally, seamlessly, throughout this transition period of the administration…and [ensure] that he had thought through the issues that the president would need to know and understand about what the military was doing,” said the advisor.
“One of the issues that he began to look at was DADT. That spun into the development of a separate team to just do that data research on the history of DADT, how it came to be the laws of the land, and what the debates and discussion in the Pentagon and on the Hill were as the law was fashioned. It was just raw collection. He wanted the input so that he could take it home, read it go through it, study it and understand it and help fashion his own opinion.”
Instead of listening to the sentiments from senior leaders such as Marine Gen. James Amos, who asserted that repealing DADT would be disruptive to troops at war, Admiral Mullen also left his desk and sought to “really see what we’re asking our men and women to do.”
misjudgment of the ship’s characteristics and lack of appreciation for the prevailing tide/current conditions.
Admiral Mullen determined that the repeal of DADT would not go down in history like his 1973 crash.
Reflecting on that process, Admiral Mullen told OutServe, “The information gathering that took place prior to the law actually changing re-enforced my belief that this was not going to have a significant impact on readiness or morale. These concerns were especially critical, as we were then still in the middle of two wars. I did feel strongly that we needed time to gather the information to understand the breadth and depth of the issues in order to properly implement the changes associated with the repeal of the law when that took place.”
He held town halls all over the world with troops, and when he’d bring the policy up, those traveling with him noted, “the reaction of the troops was muted. This wasn’t on their minds. He rarely got a question about it. We were surprised early on that he wasn’t getting any questions on DADT. As we got closer to the hearings, he would inject it as part of the Q and A, often asking ‘so what have you guys heard about DADT, what’s on your minds about that?’ The reaction of the troops was just not emotional…it was fairly blasé. It reinforced in his mind that the young troops today were ready for this. This was not going to be a big deal for them.”
Admiral Mullen continued his personal course of investigation, telling OutServe “I have talked to Marines and Soldiers who had fought in Iraq and Afghanistan who told me they found out only after the fact that their best battle-buddy was gay. They basically said that it was an irrelevant issue. What was relevant was how they fought—and they fought well.“
Admiral Mullen explained how he came to his ultimate position, “A lot of commanders on the ground don’t want the chairman to get so close to the fight. I understand that. But I tried to push as far into their world as I could. I also sat down with retired or former military members who were gays and lesbians and just listened to them, to their views, to what they’d been through. All that work got me to a position where it was fundamentally an issue of integrity. Since June 30, 1964, when I went to the Naval Academy, I’ve been taught that honor and integrity define who we are—our core values. How could I reconcile that with the fact that we were forcing men and women who would give their lives for the country to lie every day about who they are?”
And on Feb. 2, 2010, in front of the Senate Armed Service Committee, Admiral Mullen boldly shared his carefully researched understanding of the issue. “Mr. Chairman, speaking for myself and myself only, it is my personal belief that allowing gays and lesbians to serve openly would be the right thing to do,” Mullen said. “No matter how I look at the issue, I cannot escape being troubled by the fact that we have in place a policy which forces young men and women to lie about who they are in order to defend their fellow citizens…For me, personally, it comes down to integrity—theirs as individuals and ours as an institution.”
Asked if the speech had been a hard one to give, Admiral Mullen told OutServe, “It never crossed my mind that what I said in my testimony might be a mistake. As an issue of ‘integrity,’ it was not possible for it to be a mistake.”
And why should he have been worried about those words? The mistakes at the beginning of his career had become the foundation for the successes of the rest of it.
“Many were taken back by the “re-framing” of the terms of reference of the debate, which my testimony fundamentally did,” he said, “No longer was it about sexual orientation. It was about our most important value in the military: integrity.”
One of Admiral Mullen’s advisors who had been at the hearing that day told OutServe, “there was a very visceral reaction in that room. It spoke volumes about what he had to say and who he was as the top military man in the country…there are scores of days that I could point to you and say how proud I was of him, and being associated with him. None of those days exceed that pride like that day. I was never more proud to be associated with that man as I was that day.”
Reflecting on the aftermath of DADT repeal, his advisor remarked, “I remember very clearly walking out with him [after the signing of repeal] and dozens of gay and lesbian members came up to him to thank him for his role in getting that law repealed. And many of them, if not most of them, credited him with this. They said ‘if it weren’t for you, for what you said, this day would not have come.’”
The walls of Admiral Mullen’s home do not display the medals and military accolades bestowed upon him over the years, instead, they reflect his family’s showbiz background and love for theatre, bearing every Broadway playbill from shows he and his wife have attended over the years.
He probably has several bookshelves throughout his home. Perhaps he could use a pair of bookends.