Transcript of the Leadership Magazine’s Interview with Ray Mabus
How do you define leadership?
RM: The willingness to make decisions and live with consequences; the ability to take a lot of facts and a lot of different circumstances to be able to reach those decisions.
Has there been any advice that someone has given you that you will always remember?
RM: My Dad was very opposed to my entering politics. When he figured out that I was going to do it anyway, he said, “Always be honest. Always be honest about everything, not just about money and things like that. Be honest philosophically, emotionally, about what you are up to.”
How did you handle the transition from the public to private sector? Do you believe that “leadership is leadership” and that you don’t have to adapt your style at all when you work in different areas, or do you find yourself adapting quite a bit when you change from CEO to an Executive Branch position?
RM: I think you change tactics but not strategy. The same skills are there. For example, coming in to this job [U.S. Secretary of Navy], the Pentagon is a huge bureaucracy that moves slowly, and you have to adapt to that. But on the other hand you have a number of amazingly talented people, which we didn’t always have in other positions. I have also thought people can move from one thing to the other. Four years is the longest I have ever held a job in my life, and I think […] being able to change, and being able to accept new challenges is what makes life interesting.
When you served as U.S. Ambassador to Saudi Arabia, you did not have a lot of formal authority but had a lot of influence. Can you tell us about how you build structure and relationships in a foreign country and lead through influence?
RM: First, it is important for any Ambassador to remember who you are there representing. One of the big temptations is to become a homer, that you are representing Saudi Arabia to the United States instead of vice versa. But second, you do it the same way you do anything. You do it over time; you can’t do it instantly. You have to put the time in, you have to put in the energy, you have to understand the culture and who you are talking to, and you have to be very patient in terms of building those relationships. I have always had a rule in politics: go to see people at least twice people you go to ask them for anything. Because you have to understand where people are, you have to understand what their concerns are before you start to ask for things and before you start giving advice. I think part of any Ambassadorial role or any job like that is trying to get people to do things that are in our best interest and to convince them that it is in their best interest as well.
You have been very engaged with the media as the Secretary of the Navy, appearing on the Daily Show and 60 Minutes. How do you view your relationship with the media, and how do you manage your private/public roles?
RM: I think one of my jobs is to get the Navy and Marine stories out there. Such a small percentage of America is in uniform. I think reaching out [and] telling the American people what the Navy and Marines do on a day-to-day basis is an important part of my job. I went to the Daily Show because I like it – I get my news from the Daily Show [laughs]. Plus, the demographic is 18-35 year olds and that is where they get their news. I think they gave an invitation to every Secretary of the Navy to come on. I said “Sure,” I would love to do that.
You mentioned that you went to 20 countries in the past 10 months. Out of the 900,000 people you lead as Secretary of Navy, how many do you get to interact with?
RM: Tens of thousands so far. Part of my job is to go see the sailors and marines, wherever they are in the world, and tell them that we are paying attention to what they are doing and that we appreciate [their work].
You have always said you have the world’s coolest job. Can you tell us an insider Navy story?
RM: It is one of those things you can’t make up. We were in the process of planning to move 8,000 troops out of Guam. One of the things I was getting briefed on was brown tree snakes because they tend to hide in things and we were trying to keep them out of Hawaii or Texas. And so they said we were setting up an intense inspections program. One of my questions was, can we wipe them out? They said that Tylenol kills them, but they won’t eat Tylenol. So the plan was to put Tylenol into mice and parachute the mice in for the snakes to eat. Who thought of that? We are out there cutting edge on mouse technology [laugh].