How America’s Top Military Officer Uses Business to Boost National Security

Admiral Mike Mullen says the sea was his business. Now, as America’s top military officer, he’s reshaping strategy for a world in which economics and security are intertwined.

How America’s Top Military Officer Uses Business to Boost National Security
Photograph by Olaf Blecker Photograph by Olaf Blecker

On the evening of January 6, Admiral Mike Mullen got into his armored SUV and girded himself for the last meeting of his day. The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff had been up since well before dawn — he’d gone to the gym at 4:30 that morning. A bad cold was making him feel as if his head were stuffed with gauze. And his aides? Slave drivers! He’d wanted to cancel his appearance on The Daily Show With Jon Stewart, but he had done that once before, and they thought it would be bad form to back out again. So he’d flown up to New York, done the show, and survived gaffe-free. Now it was time for dinner.


The nation’s top military officer drove to New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s Upper East Side town house. It was not the chairman’s usual crowd. For one thing, the collective net worth of the gathered guests can safely be estimated as in the gajillions. Mullen’s 2009 salary of $220,734.36 was approximately 1/100th the 2009 compensation of JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon, who was at the table. Among others in the group were the mayor’s companion, Diana Taylor, a managing director at the boutique investment firm Wolfensohn & Co.; Blackstone Group CEO Stephen Schwarzman; Larry Fink, head of the investment-management firm BlackRock; real estate and media magnate Mort Zuckerman; and American Express CEO Ken Chenault.

Mullen, 63, had visited Stewart’s turf to talk; on Bloomberg’s, he intended to listen. The giants of finance quickly grabbed his ear with a litany of complaints about the White House and Congress. “They talked about how disappointed they are with Washington,” says one guest at the dinner. “People are sick and tired of being bashed by politicians, and then being called and asked for money the next day.”

Mullen often speaks in facial micro-expressions — a flicker in his eyes and a slight upturn of the lips can signal bemusement, while a sudden hard set of his jaw registers impatience or disagreement — but what comes out of his mouth is unfailingly polite. While he said nothing to discourage the complaints, he was more interested in what the group had to say about the global economy. He turned the talk to macro issues. “He wanted to know what kind of environment can be created in which business can thrive and what role governments have to play,” recalls a guest. “What is it that makes businesses successful?”


“It was a lively conversation,” says Mayor Bloomberg, with a group who have thought a lot about the global economy and “who hear firsthand what people around the world think about the United States.”

Mullen left Bloomberg’s house unsettled. “What I took away from the dinner was the sense that because of our fiscal irresponsibility, the system emulated by so many people is now being questioned,” he says. “That’s really worrisome to me.”

Oh, and he knows what you’re about to ask: How exactly is this his business? What does any of this have to do with his job or with the military’s? “Our financial health is directly related to our national security,” Mullen says. “The biggest driver globally right now is the economy — and I’d argue it always has been. I’m not an economist and I’m not a finance guy, but I need to understand the global trends that work those engines. Where are these guys putting their money? If they’re betting on certain outcomes — whether good or bad — why?”


In a series of conversations with Fast Company in the weeks after the dinner, Mullen — who likes to say, “The sea is my business” — detailed for the first time the surprising and eclectic ways in which he is worrying about everybody else’s businesses. The first chairman of the Joint Chiefs to have attended Harvard Business School, he has sought the advice of economists, entrepreneurs, not-for-profit executives, even a former Disney Imagineer. With an assist from his Twitter-loving wife, he has become the military’s marketer-in-chief. He deploys social media and quiet candor to tackle controversial issues like “don’t ask, don’t tell” and to strengthen ties between the military that’s fighting the wars and the civilians who are paying for them. “It’s America’s military,” he explains, “and America’s wars.”

In the private sector, such multidisciplinary outreach may be expected; in the tradition-bound military, it is unorthodox. These tactics have helped a laconic California kid who “just wanted to have a good time” become the top military adviser to the president of the United States and the most influential, provocative, and visible chairman of the Joint Chiefs since Colin Powell. And they have made Admiral Mullen not just a new model for military officers — and a new kind of business titan — but also a case study in 21st-century leadership.

Maybe it’s the Irishman in him, but it can take Mullen a while to tell a story. Ask why, fundamentally, he cares about business, and he unwinds a yarn that mentions his first deployment, Cold War power structures, Naval Academy classmates, and a World Bank official he had a memorable conversation with seven or eight years ago. Stick with him and he’ll almost inevitably offer some variation of what he calls his “universal constant”: “I have met parents all over the world, and they all just want to raise their kids to a higher standard than they were raised with.”


His belief that he and the military should work to make this happen shows that Mullen views the world through a remarkably wide-angled lens. “Mike sees things in a very holistic way,” says former Veterans Affairs secretary Jim Nicholson, who got to know Mullen while both were living in Italy — Nicholson as ambassador to the Vatican from 2001 to 2005 and Mullen as commander of U.S. naval forces in Europe. “Mike knows our military is not meant to conquer, dominate, and colonize. Its goal is to create freedom and opportunity.”

In a speech at Kansas State University in March, Mullen outlined the principles that he believes should govern how American military force is used today. While he’ll never win prizes for rhetoric — his aides freely say that he’s a wooden public speaker, though he comes to life in Q&As and town halls — the power of his message lay in what it lacked: the bravado and swashbuckling spirit that, fairly or not, came to be associated with Brand America during the past decade. He spoke out against America going it alone. He argued that the military has become too dominant a force in foreign policy, urging closer coordination between the military and civilian agencies. And he shut the door on the “Mission Accomplished” era, asserting that, in the future, “there isn’t going to be a single day when we stand up and say, ‘That’s it. It’s over. We’ve won.’ “

Some observers declared the emergence of the Mullen Doctrine and the refutation of Colin Powell’s argument in the early 1990s that the United States should use military force only when prepared to do so in an “overwhelming,” or “decisive,” way, with a clear exit strategy. Mullen would never accept a term as grand as “doctrine,” and he insists that his speech “was by no means intended to address the Powell Doctrine. This is about moving forward, not looking aft. All I’m talking about is how to move ahead.”


Much of the job of figuring out how to do that falls to a low-profile team within the Joint Staff called the Chairman’s Action Group (CAG). Often such departments in the military function as ideological quality control, vetting people and papers to make sure they fit the boss’s thinking. Mullen’s shop — headed by Jim Baker, a wonky engineer and Air Force colonel who played a key role in the writing of the K-State speech — is almost the opposite. “We have three functions,” Baker explains. “One, we are an independent channel of information; he’s an information hound. Two, we challenge his thinking; he knows he doesn’t usually get the full truth from other people. Three, we work on special projects for him.”

Mullen is deeply interested in the economics of post-conflict countries, so about a year ago, Baker sent some questions to Carl Schramm, CEO of the Kansas City, Missouri — based Kauffman Foundation, which studies entrepreneurship. That exchange prompted Schramm to write a white paper about what he labels “expeditionary economics.” The day after the Kansas speech, at 7:30 a.m. — it’s Mullen’s second meeting of the morning — he sits down at Fort Leavenworth with Schramm, a Kauffman exec named Bob Litan, a group of senior Army officers, and the dean of the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College.

The main topic of discussion: a new course on expeditionary economics that’s about to debut at the college. It’s designed to give officers a theoretical foundation for the development work that has become a part of their mission in Iraq and Afghanistan. (“I was basically the chamber of commerce in a province of Iraq,” one officer at the college told me. “Did I have any training for that? No!”)


Encouraging entrepreneurship is tough, Litan tells Mullen and the gathered officers, because “a key point that has come out of a lot of our work is that this can’t be too planned. By nature, capitalism is messy as hell. The military, I don’t have to tell you, does not have that mind-set.”

Mullen replies wryly: “The military doesn’t do messy.”

The room erupts in laughter that seems almost rueful — these officers, almost all veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, know how messy the reality is. In fact, that had been one of the key subtexts of Mullen’s speech the day before. He argued that force should be used “in a precise and principled way,” citing the careful strategy that General Stanley McChrystal, a Mullen ally who now leads U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, has employed to minimize civilian deaths. And the chairman’s push for a greater role for civilian agencies recognizes that the military has neither the expertise nor the manpower for the nation building it has been forced to perform.


The staff college’s expeditionary economics course is one small indicator of the ripple effects of Mullen’s inquisitiveness — and of the CAG’s ability to turn his interests into action. “If his advice were only how to fight high-tech wars, and if his solution were just to apply more force, he would be less relevant,” says retired Air Force general Brent Scowcroft, who served as national security adviser under Presidents Gerald Ford and George H.W. Bush. “He recognizes that the new face of war is a very complex operation that is part combat, part nation building, and part hearts and minds.”

“This just strikes at the heart of something I’ve thought for a long time: It’s all about economics. Can you create a standard of living that improves over time?” Mullen says, and then you can just see it coming. “I call it the universal constant of parents around the world …”

To understand how Mullen came to grasp the complexity of the world, he says we have to return to a much simpler time in his life: “I grew up in Ozzie-and-Harriet land,” he says as we chat in his Pentagon office on a dour, wintry D.C. afternoon, during the first in a series of exclusive interviews. The brightness and lightness of his work space — one aide describes the decor, with its very un-Pentagon pale wood and cream-colored carpet, as “very Scandinavian airline lounge” — seem to reflect the sunshine of Southern California, where he was reared as the eldest of five kids in a middle-class Irish-Catholic family. His dad, Jack, was a Hollywood publicist.


A mediocre student with hoop dreams — the teenage Mullen idolized Bill Bradley, then romping his way into legend as a Princeton undergrad — he headed east to the Naval Academy to play ball. (Hampered by a bum knee, he now rarely plays more than an occasional game of H-O-R-S-E with aides.) He says he began waking up to the world in that plebe year. In his first term, his GPA sank below 1.0, and he returned to L.A. for summer break in August 1965, in time to watch Watts burn. “I was amazed that it was just 15 miles from where I grew up,” he says. “It might as well have been the moon. I had no idea what was going on in the world.”

He hung on to graduate from Annapolis with the class of 1968 — a now-legendary cohort that includes Dennis Blair, the current director of national intelligence; Reagan-era national-security aide and Iran-Contra figure Oliver North; and Virginia Senator Jim Webb — and shipped off to Vietnam. En route, he stopped in Hong Kong, where, up against the wall of the pier, he saw a hut that he has never forgotten. “I looked in — no way I could fit in there — and 14, 16, 18 people were living in this little place not much bigger than my bookcase,” he says. “I didn’t know poverty like that existed, and not in a place like Hong Kong. It was the haves right next to the have-nots.”

After serving in Vietnam, Mullen rose quickly, if not always smoothly. In 1973, he took command of his first ship, the USS Noxubee. It was not the most arduous of deployments — the gas tanker went on a six-month tour of the Mediterranean, and his wife, Deborah, backpacked around Europe, meeting the ship wherever she could. Nor was it the most auspicious of starts to a commander’s career: Back in Virginia, the Noxubee scraped a buoy, an accident that Mullen believes set his career back by as much as a decade.


He’s lucky that it didn’t end his rise altogether, but his superiors liked Mullen. He was smart. He was willing to take risks — in 1991, he signed up for a special Navy program to study advanced management at Harvard Business School, a choice that, to some, suggested he wasn’t Navy through and through. And he was hardworking, which perhaps can be traced to his being a surface warfare officer. SWOs, as they’re known, have a reputation of being devoted to their work and their cause to the point of self-mortification — “like those guys in The Da Vinci Code,” one SWO told me. He won increasingly important commands: a destroyer, then a guided-missile cruiser, a carrier battle group, eventually the Second Fleet of the U.S. Navy.

In 2005, Mullen was promoted to chief of naval operations, the top spot in the U.S. Navy. He took it upon himself to outline the first overall American maritime strategy since the Cold War, when Navy secretary John Lehman drew up an ultimately unrealized plan to build a 600-ship Navy. (The Navy now has about 280 ships.) There were three remarkable and classically Mullen aspects to the strategy, all related to collaboration and partnership. First, all three maritime services — the Navy, the Marines, and the Coast Guard — worked on the plan together. Second, it proposed a “1,000-ship navy” composed not only of U.S. — flagged vessels but also of careful strategic alliances with friendly foreign navies. Finally, the planning process involved unprecedented outreach to thousands of Americans, who were invited to participate through 13 town-hall meetings held across the nation.

The sessions were designed as much to send messages as to elicit input. For instance, the first town hall was held in the major naval outpost of … Phoenix — a calculated attempt to telegraph that the defense of the seas matters to those who live nowhere near them. And the Houston town hall was held on the floor of the Federal Reserve Bank, underlining the importance that Mullen and his team place on economics as a cornerstone of national security.


Perhaps better than any other document Mullen has produced before or since, the maritime strategy explains why he puts such an emphasis on the global economy. “As our security and prosperity are inextricably linked with those of others,” the strategy summary says, “U.S. maritime forces will be deployed to protect and sustain the peaceful global system comprised of interdependent networks of trade, finance, information, law, people, and governance.” Retired Vice Admiral John Morgan, who as a deputy chief of naval operations helped Mullen formulate the plan, puts it slightly more accessibly: “Ninety percent of the volume of global GDP flows across the oceans. The gas we’re using is coming across the sea. The stuff we buy at Walmart is coming across the sea. All the nations of the world have to recognize that the defense of the maritime commons is in everyone’s interest.”

On the morning of June 8, 2007, Mullen gathered a typically unconventional group for what one of his aides called “a final crosscheck.” Joining him and the leaders of the Marines and the Coast Guard in a boardroom at the Naval Academy were top execs from Raytheon and Lockheed Martin. Also present were John Reinhart, CEO of the shipping company Maersk Line; Richard Decker, head of as-yet-undisgraced AIG’s marine unit; and, in a nod to the priority Mullen places on messaging, Bruce Redditt, a top executive from the ad giant Omnicom Group. The attendees enthusiastically endorsed the plan.

Nobody in the room, with one exception, knew that the unveiling of the new strategy would be overshadowed by bigger news: That afternoon, Defense Secretary Robert Gates announced that he would recommend to President George W. Bush that Mullen be the next chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.


Last October, Mullen gave the keynote speech at the Alfred E. Smith Foundation Dinner, a white-tie affair that’s one of the most prestigious fixtures on New York’s fall charitable-fund-raiser circuit. He took the opportunity to joke about his job. The position “is often misunderstood and more than a little confusing. I know, because when I Twitter, people just Twitter back: ‘Who the F R U and W-T-F DO U DO?’ ” he said. “My job is simply to give advice, to be a counselor to our nation’s leaders. I tell them where I think those troops and that equipment should go and how I think [they] should be used. I make suggestions. I prod and I poke. I advocate. I’m like a Fox News analyst.”

Yes and no. If the U.S. military were a corporation, it would be America’s biggest by far. It has an annual budget of some $700 billion a year (roughly 40% more than ExxonMobil, the No. 1 company in the Fortune 500) and 2.9 million staff (about a third more than Walmart’s, the nation’s largest private-sector employer). But in other ways, Mullen’s self-deprecating analogy is spot-on: It’s his job to report and let President Barack Obama (the CEO) and Secretary Gates (the COO) decide. He has no official operational control (he can’t order a ship to go here or there), but plenty of moral authority (when he says where he thinks a ship should go, chances are, people listen). You might say he’s the chief strategy officer.

There is a certain incongruity to the fact that the Joint Chiefs chair is a man of the sea when America is fighting two wars on land. “Intellectually, he’s not that comfortable with the ground wars he’s fighting. He doesn’t really understand the wars,” says one former defense official. “It’s been years since he had any operational experience, and even then he spent most of his time in a maritime service.”


The criticism seems to have the ring of validity — and there’s no shortage of Army guys who grumble the same thing. Mullen would agree that ground strategy is not his strength. But his job is less tactical than managerial and political. That his ship once scraped a buoy is less significant than that he has, for more than 40 years, navigated the egos and factions of the military and survived into a second presidential administration. In fact, his job does resemble a CEO’s. “A chief executive should not be making day-to-day decisions about the small elements of an operation,” says Frank Sica, the vice chairman of JetBlue and managing partner of Tailwind Capital, who traveled to Afghanistan with Mullen last summer. “He’s thinking about strategy, and he’s thinking about the people executing strategy — and that’s what Admiral Mullen does.”

As Mullen himself has repeatedly noted, he’s an adviser. He’s not supposed to do anything. But, as one Mullen aide puts it, the military “can be so focused on lanes that it has prevented people from being as effective as they should be. He knows his lanes. He just finds the chalk line and he walks on it.”

He has enormous freedom to gather information, but he knows information is worthless without a plan for what to do with it. And that, to him, has been a weakness of the military as it has struggled to execute two wars under increasingly stressful and unpredictable conditions. “We’re far too much an input organization,” he says. “We too often don’t have a clue about the output.”

To demonstrate one way he is addressing the output issue, he sends me with an aide to the basement of the Pentagon, behind two sets of code-locked doors and a u.s citizens only beyond this point sign. The Pakistan-Afghanistan Coordination Cell (PACC) was formed last spring by Mullen and McChrystal, then the director of the Joint Staff, to provide what Mullen calls “a real-time view of the battlefield.”

The PACC was inspired in part by Mullen’s visit a few years ago to Chicago mayor Richard Daley’s crisis-command center, an operational nucleus where data from police, fire, waste-management, and other city departments come together. “We’re all moving against time in a crisis,” Mullen says. “What especially struck me is that Daley has all the information and all the demographics of every place in the city at hand. This kind of facility helps us peer into the fight.”

Added to the mix was input from Bran Ferren, an informal Mullen adviser who used to head R&D in Disney’s Imagineering division and helped to design Daley’s command center. “He’s been telling me that the next great opportunity for us is universal situational awareness,” Mullen says. “Anything that disrupts the envelope — we see it and we can act on it, whether it’s in the air, on land, or underwater. Our biggest competitive advantage can be our knowledge.”

You can also see the influence of John Kotter, one of Mullen’s Harvard Business School professors. “He talked a lot about leading during a time of change,” Mullen recalls. “It’s all about speed of execution, about constantly improving.” Mullen had been frustrated at the slowness with which he was getting field reports — and the subsequent delay in giving President Obama and Secretary Gates timely advice. “The insurgents, they were adjusting their tactics instantly, over a cup of coffee on a napkin in a café,” he says. Getting actionable intel from this kind of battlefield is extraordinarily challenging, but still: “We get fleeting indicators — bits of data that we’d better know what to do with. But it wasn’t just taking us two to three hours to respond — it was two to three days or two to three weeks. We’re sending data back to Indiana and waiting. It was a losing proposition. But technology and connectivity help us to overcome that.”

McChrystal and Mullen pulled officers from the various directorates of the Joint Staff — operations, logistics, policy, and planning — and put them together in one room, blasting through the silo walls that had previously kept them from communicating and collaborating efficiently, even though they were all working on related issues. “The key words down here are ‘flatter’ and ‘faster,’ ” says an Air Force officer who has moved downstairs to the PACC. “We are operating at the speed of war.”

They are also doing so with surprisingly open doors. For instance, McChrystal instituted an hour-long, unclassified video teleconference called the Federation Forum each Friday morning that epitomizes the PACC’s all-hands approach. Commanders call in from Afghanistan, and the Aussies and the British often have people on the line. Also always present: representatives from Washington think tanks and members of the media. In fact, anyone from the Afghanistan-Pakistan “community of interest” is welcome, not just to observe but also to speak up. For the first half of the session, the various commanders give updates, and for the second half, there’s a themed, open discussion — one recent topic was how to measure success in Afghanistan. “The point is to generate ideas,” one regular participant says. “We’re not operating on a need-to-know basis — it’s need-to-share. The military has a culture of its own and a way of looking at things, but there are different ways and different perspectives.”

The PACC is now bolstering its on-the-ground eyes and ears through a program called Afghan Hands. The group is tacit acknowledgment that, to this point, “we have fought eight one-year wars, not one eight-year war,” says a PACC officer. The knowledge and relationships forged during deployments have been lost once troops return to the United States, forcing their replacements to start virtually all over again. Under Afghan Hands, hundreds of the best officers with experience in Afghanistan and Pakistan are being cycled through intensive language and culture training before being redeployed. The idea is to build on the knowledge and expertise they earned in the field so they can contribute more effectively not only to the fight but also to future stability. Just outside the door of the PACC is a quote from George Washington that seems particularly fitting for the mission: to be prepared for war is one of the most effectual means of preserving peace.

“I am trying to build an idea factory,” Mullen says as we fly back to D.C. from California aboard a military C-40 (that’s a Boeing 737 to the rest of us) the morning after the commissioning of the USS Dewey, a new guided-missile destroyer. “But the system does not like new ideas, even in a time of great change. They become an infection that people try to kill, because they can be very threatening.”

Mullen’s words seem slightly discordant. They sound as if they belong to a Silicon Valley VC, not the nation’s top military man or the person sitting next to me — who, in his civilian clothes and with the worry lines of a 40-year naval career creasing his face, looks more like a grandpa (which he is — his grandson, Keegan, will turn 2 in November). Plus, few institutions value old times’ sake more than the military — to wit, the ceremony that we had attended the day before, complete with a brass band and bunting. “This system,” Mullen says with a half-smile and typical understatement, “is not user-friendly in terms of generating good ideas.”

Mullen explains that he’s trying to better serve two key audiences — you might even think of them as two different classes of shareholders. “Particularly for our young officers and soldiers, I work hard to connect with people outside my business because it stimulates me and others. I hope that what we are building will meet their expectations of a moving, open organization,” he says. “Also, I am resourced by the American taxpayer. I take great care with the stewardship of the money they pay for the national defense.”

More than any other Joint Chiefs chairman in memory, Mullen has sought to use what he calls “this great microphone that I have” to speak to these two audiences. He has gone multimedia: Over the objections of his aides, he created a Facebook page and started tweeting. “I’m immensely conscious of the fact that the average age in any military unit is 21 years old,” he says. Beyond the ranks, he wants to reach citizens who may not watch his congressional testimony on C-SPAN or read about it in the morning paper. (“I have scars from Vietnam just like everyone else,” he says. “The separation I saw between the military and the American people? I never want that to happen again.”) After he told Congress on February 2 that it was his personal opinion that the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy that bans gays from openly serving in the military should be lifted, he went back to his office and tweeted: “Stand by what I said.”

Twitter has also been a valuable source of intelligence for Mullen. His wife, who has made it her mission to advocate for wounded warriors and military families, tweets prolifically and follows many of the people she works with. When a program to pay for college classes for military spouses prematurely ran out of money a couple of months ago, Mullen says, “she found out before I did because the spouse network lit up Twitter.”

Patrick Cronin, a senior adviser at the Center for a New American Security, a nonpartisan Washington think tank that focuses on defense, says that one of Mullen’s defining characteristics is that he “understands narrative.” There are a couple of ways to interpret that statement, and they’re not mutually exclusive. One is that narrative has key elements, from interesting characters (himself) to a bit of surprise (what we’re talking about in this story). Another is that he gets how storytelling works — you need the beginning, the middle, and the end.

Mullen knows that the end of his career is not far away. His current term will expire in the fall of 2011, and while it’s possible that President Obama could keep him on for a third two-year term, only one chairman — Earle Wheeler, who held the post during the Vietnam War — served for more than four years. While one of his aides insists that Mullen would be the last person to use the word “legacy,” Mullen himself says, “I’m not going to be here forever. I’m thinking of the young people who come after me.”

On his desk are three souvenirs that he says “remind me all the time” of what he’s trying to do. None of them are overtly military. Two of them are mementos of his universal constant of parents. There’s a U.S. flag drawn by a young American. And on top of that, there’s a pair of scissors with which he cut the ribbon to open a school for girls in Afghanistan last July at the invitation of Three Cups of Tea author and Army veteran Greg Mortenson, a friend whose Central Asia Institute founded the school.

Then there is an Indian talking stick given to him by the management expert Stephen Covey. It’s an odd, somewhat corny thing to keep on your desk if you’re an admiral, but to Mullen, it’s a meaningful symbol of how he approaches his job. “To me, it’s a symbol of trust — and trust is what I try to build every day,” he says. “The rule is, when you have the stick, you talk until you’re done — which means you’re satisfied that the person you’re talking with has an understanding of your views. And the other person has to listen.” He’s not quite done talking yet — about his business or ours.


About the author

Jeff Chu writes on international affairs, social issues, and design for Fast Company. His first book, Does Jesus Really Love Me?: A Gay Christian's Pilgrimage in Search of God in America, was published by HarperCollins in April 2013.


Call for Most Innovative Companies entries! Apply now.

500+ winners will be featured on Final deadline: 9/23.