Early stumbles didn't sink admiral's career



Adm. Mike Mullen recounted his early career missteps to laughs on the Late Show with David Letterman. // Defense Department

If your career seems rocky, consider this one: He was nearly booted from college, graduated in the bottom third of his class, and only a few years into his naval career, he struck a buoy with his ship.

That lackluster start belongs to Adm. Mike Mullen, now the military’s top officer.

Mullen recounted his early stumbles as a midshipman and junior officer to laughs and applause on the Late Show with David Letterman on June 13.

In his first month as a senior at the Naval Academy, Mullen said he racked up 115 demerits; only 35 more and he would be expelled, he noted.

“Wait a minute: and now you’re the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff?” Letterman replied, to applause. “I mean, does anybody look at your records?”

For his part, Mullen said it took 11 years to recover from hitting a buoy while he commanded a gasoline tanker and attributed his eventual success to finding good mentors and not giving up.

A partial transcript is below, edited for brevity.

David Letterman: What kind of student were you at Annapolis?

Mike Mullen: Ah, not that good.

DL: I don’t know anything about it other than their system of demerits in Annapolis and I guess all military academies, maybe schools generally. What do you have to do to get a demerit?

MM: Well, there are actually a lot of things that you could do and actually I got my fair share of demerits.

DL: You remember the high number of your visit there?

MM: Well in the last year that I was there, my senior year, you could only get 150 and if you get a 150 demerits you get kicked out. And I managed to get 115 within the first month.

DL: Wait a minute: and now you’re the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff? I mean, does anybody look at your records? How does this happen? [applause]What was the problem?

MM: Actually when I got there, having no idea, I just met really great people and one of the reasons that I’m in the military today is because I’ve been around great people for coming up on 47 years, truly extraordinary. And some of us like to have a good time. So I just had a good time early in my senior year and didn’t do much the rest of the year.

DL: That’s interesting, isn’t it? Where did you graduate in the class?

MM: In the bottom third.

DL: Wow. [applause]The audience applauding underachievement.

DL: So now [you’re] chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. How did you get the job and what do you do there?

MM: I stayed in the Navy originally because I had the honor of commanding a ship early in my career. I was in my mid-20s.

DL: What was the ship?

MM: A gasoline tanker, really from Vietnam and World War II, a 100 sailors, deployed to the Mediterranean and the responsibility was great and actually getting exposed to the world was really great. And enjoyed that and wanted to command.

DL: How old were you as a captain?

MM: The first time I commanded a ship I was 26.

DL: 26. Wow. I didn’t even have a driver’s license when I was 26. Is that typical of ship captains, they tend to be in their mid-20s?

MM: Well, some of them. For young lieutenants and those — you’re encouraged to do this by some and you’re encouraged to not do it by others because you take a real chance in your career and actually at the end of that two years, my career was in pretty bad shape.

DL: Really?

MM: Yes.

DL: For reasons that what, were out of your control?

MM: Well I received on what I would call an A-to-F scale an evaluation that was in the F category and it took me – for an incident I had when I accidentally collided with a buoy in the channel, which is not a good – Where is this going, Dave?

DL: Wow. Wow.

MM: But it took me, so it took me about 11 years to actually recover from that and get my next command and a couple after that. But no aspirations to ever get to this level.

DL: Well I guess, in all aspects of the military, but certainly in terms of leadership, it is fraught. It’s a minefield. I mean the mistakes are all there for a man or a woman to make.

MM: One of the things that I’ve learned is more from those mistakes than I have from those successes. It was a measure of getting up after those mistakes and actually having mentors who saw something in me that might bode well for the future and let me continue.

DL: Did you ever think consider, well, geez, maybe because of how I did at Annapolis and running into the pier in San Diego or whatever it was, maybe I really am not going to get my sea legs under me here?

MM: Actually, never gave it a second thought.


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  1. Yep, that’s the way it works. If you’re a ring knocker, and have the right “rabbi” to mentor you, you can screw up royally, and still make 4 stars.

    Just look at the CO of the Big E, when she ran aground, on her last day of deployment, ~600 yards from the pier. Stuck there for hours, until the tide came in, HUGE embarassment to the Navy. The incident happened in 1983, and the CO was Captain Robert J Kelly, who had a line number for his first star.

    By 1993, Kelly was a 4-star admiral, and served as CINCPACFLT (Commander in Chief, Pacific Fleet). Yeah, that’s right……a grounding incident, many of which have brought an abrupt (and sometimes, early) halt to a naval officer’s career, did NOTHING to stop his rise to the top of the heap!


  2. Don’t be a hater. They don’t just hand out those rings.

    And I don’t believe in the Zero Defect Mentality as a measure for evaluating leadership potential, either.

    There has to be some room to allow people with leadership qualities to grow and refine their judgement. Otherwise, all the risk takers leave and when it comes time to screen for senior positions, all you have left are the risk averse people who follow orders to the tee and toe the line… and those are the usually the “leaders” who tend to show very little compassion for or confidence in their subordinates.

    Not everyone who makes a mistake is incompetent. Not everyone who follows directions is competent.

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