UT Chancellor McRaven: ‘I will take chemistry over talent any day’

Retired Adm. William McRaven, chancellor of the University of Texas System, learned much about leadership during 37 years in the military. On Feb. 2 he visited Rice’s Jones Graduate School of Business to share leadership lessons at this year’s Rice Veterans in Leadership Series event, which helps raise funds for the Jones School’s Military Scholars Program.

“Volunteer for the worst job every time you start a new position,” University of Texas System Chancellor William McRaven told the audience at this year’s Rice Veterans in Leadership Series event. Photos by Jeff Fitlow

Prior to becoming chancellor in January 2015, McRaven was a Navy SEAL who rose through the ranks to become a four-star admiral. As commander of the U.S. Special Operations Command, McRaven led a force of 69,000 men and women and oversaw global counterterrorism operations, including the special operation raid that led to the death of Osama bin Laden.

McRaven was introduced by William Lyles, a veteran, full-time MBA student at Rice and president of the Rice Veterans in Business Association (VIBA), which hosted the evening event together with Rice’s Baker Institute for Public Policy’s Roundtable Young Professionals. VIBA provides assistance to veterans transitioning from military service to student life.

A former Army Green Beret, Lyles lost his legs in 2010 after stepping on a buried IED (improvised explosive device) in a remote province of Afghanistan. He recounted the time McRaven and his wife visited with him during his grueling rehab at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio. “There is a quote from Napoleon Bonaparte,” Lyles said. “If you build an army of 100 lions and their leader is a dog, in any fight, the lions will die like a dog. But if you build an army of 100 dogs and their leader is a lion, all dogs will fight like a lion. Adm. McRaven is a lion.”

McRaven’s leadership lessons ranged from underscoring the importance of humility to the value of communication and teamwork.

“Volunteer for the hardest, crummiest job you can find (to learn leadership) … and that builds your allegiance with the troops,” McRaven said. As a young midshipman, McRaven once spent nine weeks on a frigate scrubbing the decks and cleaning the latrines. It was the most profound lesson McRaven said he learned in the military because it taught him humility and the impact of decisions from the top. Later, when he led SEAL missions, McRaven said, he was the first one jumping out of the helicopter and the last one grabbing his meal on the chow line. “A shepherd should smell like his sheep,” McRaven said, quoting Pope Francis. “Every decision you make as a leader has an impact on your team, all the way to the guy in the boiler room.”

As a military commander, McRaven said, it was his job to make the tough decisions and explain himself. “As a leader, you have to communicate your intent at all times,” he said. “It’s easy to be liked as a leader, but you want to be respected. That’s hard.”

Rice alumnus and veteran Jimmy Batista ’13, who helped found VIBA, moderated a Q&A with McRaven following his remarks.

In explaining the value of teamwork, McRaven told the story of a SEAL training off the coast of California, where instructors had teams of seven men push a small inflatable dinghy off the beach and paddle into 10-foot swells. The drill required everyone on the team to paddle to the coxswain’s stroke count because if one person failed to paddle, the waves would push their boat back to shore. McRaven noticed some of the most able SEAL teams had smaller men who didn’t have big egos, McRaven said. “It’s not necessarily about the talent on your team; it’s about the chemistry of the team,” McRaven said. “I will take chemistry over talent any day.”

In 2009, Rice was one of the first schools to join the Yellow Ribbon Program, which provides federal matching funds to help veterans attend private schools where the post-9/11 GI Bill often doesn’t cover the full cost of tuition. Today, military veterans compose about 10 percent of each MBA class, and more than 100 veterans have graduated from one of the programs (full time, professional and executive) since 2011, said Winston Elliott, a veteran, full-time MBA student and chair of VIBA, who welcomed attendees to the event in McNair Hall’s Shell Auditorium. “The Jones School … often has the highest percentage of veteran enrollment among the nation’s top-20 business schools,” he said.

“First and foremost, the Jones School wants to attract veterans to our MBA program because they’re a very deep and talented pool of individuals,” Jones School Dean Peter Rodriguez said in a video that was shown at the beginning of the program. “They’re trained in specific skills, they’ve worked in teams, they’re leadership-ready. They really want to have an impact on the world, and they want to have an impact through their business skills. Beyond that, they actually teach our students how to lead and that’s something we could never do as well without them.”

Baker Institute Director Edward Djerejian, a military veteran himself, echoed Rodriguez’s comments. “They (veterans) come with real-world experience that most Americans of their generation don’t have,” he said.

Inaugurated in 2012, the Jones School’s Military Scholars Program provides a two-year scholarship to cover tuition, fees and living expenses for a veteran to earn a full-time graduate business degree. Former Jones School Dean Bill Glick, along with Rice trustees and members of Jones’ leadership team, began the program. For more information, go to https://business.rice.edu/military-rice/military-scholars-program.

About Jeff Falk

Jeff Falk is associate director of national media relations in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.