McRaven, Castro, Brennan, and Inman Talk Leadership at LBJ School

On Feb. 15, 2018, two retired admirals and a pair of Obama-era cabinet members joined forces to dispense leadership advice and observations from their lives of public service. From the Afghanistan battlefield to the American inner city, John Brennan, Bill McRaven, Julian Castro, and Bobby Inman have covered a lot of ground.

Taken together, their resumes offer a medley of experience, include decades in key posts, and feature the leadership of hundreds of thousands of soldiers, sailors, spies, and public servants.

Brennan, MA ’80, formerly helmed the CIA. UT Chancellor McRaven, BJ ’77, Life Member, Distinguished Alumnus, commanded the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC). Castro, a professor at the LBJ School, was secretary of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and mayor of San Antonio. Inman, BA ’50, Life Member, Distinguished Alumnus, is an LBJ professor, retired admiral, and former head of the NSA with 31 years of government experience, 35 in the private sector, and 27 in academia.

The talk was a joint venture of the Clements Center, Strauss Center, and Intelligence Studies Project. Will Inboden, an LBJ School professor and director of the Clements Center, moderated. He probed panelists with thorough questioning and opened the conversation to students, who followed suit with comparable scrutiny.

Inboden asked the panel: Can individuals cultivate leadership skills or are they inherently bestowed? Panelists agreed that it is a combination of both nature and nurture.

Brennan teed off with a crowd-pleaser, positing that the “most essential quality of leadership is a good University of Texas education.” More seriously, he described his leadership style as the culmination of bedrock principles impressed on him from an early age and instilled in him through highly capable coworkers.

McRaven quoted military strategist Carl Von Clausewitz. “Everything in war is very simple,” Clausewitz wrote, “but the simplest thing is difficult.” McRaven said that what distinguishes great leaders is their “emotional quotient,” which he defined as the capacity to “see and feel things that others don’t see and feel.”

Castro said that vision—“being able to articulate what you’re going to do if people put their trust in you”—makes or breaks a leader. As mayor, his main initiative was to bring the entrepreneurial and enterprising ethos of the Bay Area to San Antonio, while retaining the “common sense of identity and undergirding connections,” that makes Texas so idiosyncratic.

Panelists also discussed the difficulty of navigating the heady waters of public opinion. With media scrutiny, a social media-addled society, and breakneck news cycles, this is all the more difficult.

Inman decried cultural changes in and out of the nation’s capital: politicians always zeroed in on reelection, polarization climbing to unprecedented heights, and Congress-members spending less time in D.C. Though these changes are understandable, he said, they have driven a wedge through Congress to such a dramatic point that the camaraderie and conviviality tying elected officials together seem like relics of a bygone era.

Panelists peeled back the curtains, offering an unvarnished look at their fallibilities and highlighting faults and foibles from their careers. Castro ran afoul of the Hatch Act while in office. Brennan was overbearing when thrust into a new leadership role. McRaven fell on his sword when JSOC operators caused a serious civilian casualty incident in Afghanistan. Inman said that learning to delegate was the “hardest single thing I had to do to learn as a manager.”

Leading an espionage agency or covert military command means that in many cases, leadership is unattributable and conducted under a cloak of secrecy. In many cases, this means that leadership comes with the highest of stakes. Brennan and McRaven, who by way of experience are among the country’s foremost counterterrorism czars, discussed Operation Neptune Spear, the mission that ensnared and ended the life of Osama Bin Laden.

Both men played pivotal roles, given the complementary functions of the CIA in finding Bin Laden and JSOC in nabbing him. The effort to locate Bin Laden required years of multi-source, interagency intelligence gathering. The mission to get Al Qaeda’s founder was inestimably daring: the U.S. retrofitted two Black Hawks with stealth technology, flew across an ally’s sovereign borders, and dispatched a team of Navy SEALs who, if anything went wrong, would not be returning home to their families.

Sure enough, everything did not go as planned. As the elite commandos descended on Bin Laden’s compound, a Black Hawk’s tail rotor clipped a wall of the courtyard, abruptly grounding and disabling the helicopter. Brennan commended McRaven, who remained level-headed in the heat of the moment and unperturbed throughout the entire mission.

 Despite the diversity of experience and different backgrounds of each panelist, commonality undercut the conversation. Abiding principles—honesty, integrity, and transparency—make for a great leader. Availability, accessibility, and articulateness are indispensable. A cool demeanor and a strong sense of integrity are a must, as is being able to pick between two bad options. And, above all else, make your bed in the morning.

The four panelists shared parting words about their support networks and the difficulty balancing work and life. The admirals paid homage to their wives. McRaven fessed to what keeps him going: “You have to have that partner that gets you through the tough moments. They patch you up, dust you off … you will need them.”

John O. Brennan, Chancellor William H. McRaven, moderator William Imboden, Julian Castro and Admiral Bobby R. Inman. Photo courtesy of Intelligence Studies Project and Bob Daemmrich.

 
 
 

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