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‘Who Dares Wins’: Navy SEAL Admiral Talks Bin Laden Raid

William McRaven on need to take risks if we are to succeed

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Photo: Arturo Olmos

You gave a commencement address about making your bed every day that got 100 million views online. Why is that so important?

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When I was training to become a SEAL, we got inspected every morning. The instructor would invariably pull out a quarter and flip it into the air to see if you’d pulled the blanket and sheet taut enough to make the coin bounce. Finally, I got up the courage to ask a chief petty officer why, and he said, “Well, it’s pretty simple. If you can’t even make your bed to exacting standards, how are we ever going to trust you to lead a complex SEAL mission? Learn to do the little things right and you’ll learn to do the big things right.”

Do you still make your bed?

Every single day. My wife and I have a big king-sized bed, and we used to make the bed together. But after I gave that speech, she said, “Oh no, big boy, it’s all yours now!”

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In your new book, The Wisdom of the Bullfrog, you talk about an important lesson SEALs learn: Think first of others.

I like to tell the story of Sgt. Maj. Chris Faris, my right-hand man in Afghanistan. One day, I did a Zoom call with my doctor, and she told me I’d been diagnosed with cancer. I needed to go back to the States immediately to have my spleen removed and start chemotherapy. “Your military career is probably over,” she added. When I got back to my office, Chris was there, and he noticed something wasn’t right. After I told him, he said, “OK, boss, we’ve got the morning briefing coming up, and you need to be there. The troops are counting on you.”

So we did the video teleconference with thousands of our team members around the world. And before I could say anything, Chris asked someone to put up a list of the people who’d been injured in combat the night before. Then he gave me a look, and I knew what it meant. I had a problem, but it paled in comparison to what these young men and women were going through. That was exactly the right thing to tell me at the time. It helped put my minor problem in perspective.

Tell me about guarding Saddam Hussein.

Some of the guys who worked for me captured Saddam in 2003, and we had to hold on to him for about 30 days. He was pompous and arrogant when we captured him, but as the days went on and he no longer had his palaces, his generals and his handmaidens, he just became a pathetic old man. I contrast him with Nelson Mandela, who spent almost 30 years incarcerated, but because Mandela had this great strength of character he came out of prison as strong and maybe even stronger than when he went in. Bullies like Saddam always seem to collapse when you confront them, but men of integrity like Mandela can withstand the terrible inequities of life.

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Within about four or five days you could tell that Saddam was not a leader. When you take away all the trappings, that’s when you find out the character of an individual.

You led the raid that killed Osama bin Laden. What did that experience teach you?

Leadership lessons from the people I worked with. One was Leon Panetta, the director of the CIA at the time. The CIA had done an absolutely incredible job finding bin Laden, and it could have taken all the credit for getting him. But Panetta knew that my organization was a better fit for the commando raid, so he put his ego aside and made us part of the team. And as one big team, we were all successful. The other person was President Obama. Watching him on this one was a master class in executive leadership. He was always willing to hear everyone’s position. He welcomed challenging viewpoints.

What was the mission’s greatest challenge?

With this raid, we never knew for certain that it was bin Laden. The president really had to gamble tremendously. The British Special Air Service has a motto: “Who Dares Wins.” Good leaders tend to do things that are safe and reasonable, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But great leaders take risks. They’re not afraid to fail if they think the risk is worth the gain.

You had to ask forgiveness from a man whose son was accidentally killed in Afghanistan.

The mission was all a horrible misunderstanding and as tragic as it gets. We had inadvertently killed the man’s son and maybe one of his daughters. I knew that I owed the family a sincere apology. Before I met with the father, I asked an Afghan general who worked for us how this man would respond if I asked for forgiveness. “He will absolutely forgive you,” the general said, “because it will not only relieve your burden, it will relieve his burden as well.”

How did it unfold?

There were about 200 Afghans packed into a long banquet hall, and I was one of only two Americans. The man looked heartbroken and another son was next to him, with hatred in his eyes. I stepped forward and said, “I’m a soldier, but I also have children. I know how difficult this would be for me if this tragedy happened to my children.” Then I asked the man for forgiveness. As I watched him the hatred and tension began to lower. Finally, his son said to me, “We accept your apology, and we will have no more hatred in our hearts for you.”

That had to be a heartbreaking moment.

I don’t know if I could have been as forgiving. I often say courage is the most important quality. It guarantees all the rest. But it is equally as difficult to forgive as it is to be courageous.

This interview appeared in the April issue of the AARP Bulletin. Adml. McRaven's new book The Wisdom of the Bullfrog Leadership Made Simple (But Not Easy) was published by Grand Central last month.

You can subscribe here to AARP Veteran Report, a free e-newsletter published every two weeks. If you have feedback or a story idea then please contact us here.

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