When Admiral William McRaven, then U.S. Special Operations commander, was planning Operation Neptune Spear, the mission that killed Osama Bin Laden, he assembled some of the finest warriors on the planet; ripped, battle-hardened, steely-eyed Navy Seals who stormed the compound and fired the shots.
But behind the bullets were analysts McRaven plucked from the CIA, NSA and National Geospatial Intelligence Agency, “none of whom looked much like my combat-hardened Seals, just men and women who had spent much of their careers hunting Osama Bin Laden,” he said during the “Salute to Legislative Staff” session of NCSL Base Camp 2021.
“To the Seals, these analysts were the most important people in the room,” he said. “These were the people who could answer their questions: How far it was from Jalalabad, Afghanistan, to Abbottabad, Pakistan? Who could tell them about the Pakistani integrated air defenses? Who could tell them about the thickness of the compound wall hiding Bin Laden? How long it would take before the Pakistani Army and police would show up? It was the analysts who would know whether the man on the third floor of the compound was indeed the most wanted man in the world.”
In the Navy, we talk about chief petty officers being the backbone of the Navy. Make no mistake about it, I know who the backbones of the state legislatures are and that’s all of you. Without your hard work, your professionalism, your dedication to your state, frankly none of us could prosper or do what we love in life.” —Admiral William McRaven
McRaven, who retired as a four-star admiral and spent three years as chancellor of the University of Texas system, said he learned early in the war that teamwork was more than the Seals. “Every mission has an ecosystem, and every mission required every person to play their part and play it well,” he said. “While the Seals got the glory, it was a team effort and everybody understood that.”
NCSL Staff Chair Martha Wigton said McRaven “gets the complicated and often thankless job we do and why we do it.”
He was quick to concur.
“I do get it. I do understand what the staff does. In the Navy, we talk about chief petty officers being the backbone of the Navy. Make no mistake about it, I know who the backbones of the state legislatures are and that’s all of you,” he said. “Without your hard work, your professionalism, your dedication to your state, frankly none of us could prosper or do what we love in life.”
Sometimes, he said, it takes a crisis before the nature of teamwork and the role of staff is fully appreciated.
McRaven was the University of Texas system chancellor in 2017 when Hurricane Harvey hit Houston, devastating the city and its surrounding area.
“Two of the largest health centers (both part of the UT system), the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center and UT Health Houston had to continue to operate,” he said. “They had patients in the hospital, water outside had risen to four feet above the street. Doctors and lot of staff had to spend 24 hours a day for four days caring for patients, sleeping in break rooms, eating from vending machines.
“I would argue it might have been the most illuminating four days of their careers and their lives. All the folks were isolated in the same building for four days. Everyone realized their success depended upon all the folks who did the less glamorous work, cooked the meals, answered the phones, under these challenging conditions,” he said.
“The folks who mattered most were the housekeeping staff. Those mainly minority women cleaned the rooms, washed the sheets, mopped the halls, because without the housekeeping staff, the patients weren’t sleeping on clean sheets, the restrooms were unsanitary, the potential for infection rose dramatically if the housekeeping staff didn’t do their job. In those four days, the ladies in housekeeping rose to the occasion and never missed a beat.”
Nothing is more rewarding than being part of a great team, McRaven said.
“You can make a difference whether you are answering the phones or taking the call. Each of you have a leadership role in that team, particularly when things don’t go well. Each of you will have to maintain your composure when things get heated, have to realize the mission is more important than each of you.
“Serving your fellow citizens is the most noble and honorable undertaking any of us can do.”
Taking a cue from his 2017 No. 1 New York Times bestseller, “Make Your Bed: Little Things That Can Change Your Life … And Maybe the World,” McRaven urged staffers to take the long view of their work.
“Maybe you save one child from hunger and that child goes on to find a cure for cancer or wins the Nobel Prize or becomes the governor of the state. You go about your work not knowing that person’s name, but you do know they exist,” he said.
“Let’s be honest, when you work behind the scenes all day and someone else gets the credit, that’s tough on all of us. We all want to be patted on the back, we all have a little bit of an ego. But rest assured while late in my career I got a lot of credit for the work done below me, early in my career I was one of those behind-the-scenes guys. The deed is all, not the glory.
“That’s easier said than done but frankly one of the best ways to do that is with the recognition you’re doing today.” The session included a ceremony honoring the winners of NCSL legislative staff awards.
Asked by Wigton about how to filter out the noise that inhibits good decision-making, McLaren said simplifying the process is crucial.
“There’s nothing like experience to make a good decision,” he said. “You can be inundated with a thousand ideas but what you learn is most of these problems have been seen before. Your job is to simplify the problem as much as you can so you don’t get caught up in all the noise.”
Learning from failure informs and shapes good leadership, he added.
“Leadership has nothing to do with things going great. Somebody said a ship in the harbor is safe but that’s not what ships are built for. Anybody can lead in a safe harbor—it’s when you’re in rough seas that you need good leaders. Leading in difficult times is when you have to step up to the plate. Good leaders learn from their mistakes and learn as best they can but then you have to go and make the next decision. Because if you’re afraid to make the next tough decision as a leader you’re probably not the leader for that organization. Keep moving forward, keep assuming risk.”
And, he said, nothing beats hard work.
“Every day you wake up, if you’re doing something good and honorable you have something to prove. If you think you have something owed to you, if you think you’ve earned the right to work less hard than the librarian or the security guard or the administrative staff, my guess is you’re mistaken. Every day you go in you have to do your best. Wherever you are in the chain of command you have to earn it every single day.”
McRaven’s new book is “The Hero Code: Lessons Learned from Lives Well Lived.”
Mark Wolf is editor of the NCSL Blog.