February 15, 2018, 12:15 PM - 01:45 PM

12:15 PM

Bass Lecture Hall, LBJ School of Public Affairs Austin Texas

A Conversation on Leadership with John O. Brennan, Admiral Bob Inman, Chancellor William McRaven and Julian Castro
February 15, 2018, 12:15 PM - 01:45 PM
A Conversation on Leadership with John O. Brennan, Admiral Bob Inman, Chancellor William McRaven and Julian Castro

On Thursday, February 15, 2018, the Robert Strauss Center, Intelligence Studies Project, and Clements Center welcomed University Distinguished Scholar and former CIA Director John O. Brennan, Chancellor William McRaven, Admiral Bob Inman, and the Honorable Julian Castro for a public talk on leadership in the public sector. The panel was moderated by William Inboden, Executive Director of the Clements Center. Photos of the event can be found here.

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As each speaker detailed their own understanding of leadership and fielded questions from Dr. Inboden and the audience, they echoed a singular message: to be a truly great leader you must set forth a vision for your organization and actively pursue it. A great leader must stay true to a core set of values, and they must listen to and engage with those they are leading. In their individual remarks Brennan, Inman, McRaven, and Castro regaled the audience with stories of their own successes and failures, conveying wisdom garnered over decades of experience in some of our nation’s most senior leadership positions. The following are selected remarks from their conversation.

John Brennan

Former CIA director and UT alum John Brennan began by saying that truly great leaders have one thing in common aside from a University of Texas education; their leadership is a manifestation of their experiences and their guiding principles. The importance of morality – a simple understanding of the difference between right and wrong – is something that Brennan said was instilled in him very early. Brennan noted, “My father used to tell me ‘If you can look yourself in the mirror every day and say you made the right decisions because you believed they were the right thing to do, then that is fine.’ The naysayers will always be out there, but you must be sure to live to your principles.” Ultimately a leader’s ability to do the right thing at difficult times is what Brennan says distinguishes successful leaders from those that fail.

In addition to living in accordance with a strong moral foundation, Brennan noted that it is also a leader’s responsibility to listen to the concerns and aspirations of those under you. Given that no organization is monolithic, it is the leader’s responsibility to create an environment where people feel empowered not just to act, but to speak up as well.


 Admiral Bob Inman

Admiral Bob Inman, who has served as director of Naval Intelligence, Vice Director of the DIA, deputy director of Central Intelligence, and director of the NSA, said that in all his 31 years of working for the government, 35 years in the private sector, and 27 years in academia, he learned the fundamentals of leadership in his very first job in the navy on an aircraft carrier in combat. Inman stated simply, “you manage things, but you lead people.” To do that you have to be interested in the people you lead. You must understand their needs and concerns, and do not ever underestimate the value of direct communication.

When asked how best to stay true to one’s own values, Inman stressed the importance of leading by example. Make sure you are doing the right thing, and “confront barriers that do not serve the common interest – that is a leadership issue.” 


 Chancellor William McRaven 

As former head of U.S. Special Operations Command and JSOC, Chancellor McRaven said that in order to foster new leaders the military teaches the following phrase: take care of the troops, and the troops will take care of you. The question then becomes what does it mean to take care of the troops? In any great organization, the first step is to set a standard of excellence. You then must give people the resources to reach those standards and hold them accountable. To set the standards, to make decisions as the head of an organization, McRaven says that you must do the right thing and the right thing is that course of action that is moral, legal, and ethical. Chancellor McRaven noted that failures in today’s leadership happen when there is an absence of guiding moral principles. Like a house of cards, organizations and achievements that are not grounded in a strong foundation will inevitably collapse.

Another key to successful leadership is striking the proper professional distance. When asked about how to lead an organization in which you can’t meet everyone, McRaven said that you must establish a kind of battle rhythm and intentionally carve out time to engage with people. You cannot lead from an ivory tower.


 Julian Castro

In his description of leadership, Castro said that from the very beginning the best leaders have a strong vision of where they want their organization to go. This vision should not only reflect the leader’s personal interests but also the interests of those they lead.

When asked how to balance leadership with public opinion, Castro noted that this is a question he hears often and was particularly wary of when entering the political arena. Like many, he feared his own individuality could get lost in the politics. However, in his years of experience both as Mayor of San Antonio and Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, Castro has found that, though it is possible to get off track, it is equally possible to stay true to your convictions and still make necessary compromises.

When leaders do fail, Castro emphasized that it’s important that they be able to admit their mistakes. Sometimes people do mess up, and in order to foster better leadership “we need to get back to a place in our country where our leaders can admit that, accept that, and grow from that.”