06/19/2010 12:42 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Admiral Michael Mullen--A Leadership Style We Can Believe In

I didn't know what to expect when I went to the Pentagon last week to interview Admiral Michael Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Yes, I had read the May 2010 Fast Company magazine cover story that describes him as "a case study in 21st-century leadership" and the 2010 Time magazine article where he was selected as one of the 100 most influential people in the world. I certainly knew the facts about his leadership on work-life issues--his commitment to getting more women and people of color in top jobs and on creating more family supportive policies. That's precisely why I was interviewing him: the organization I head, the Families and Work Institute was honoring him for this work. Despite knowing the facts, my interview with him was surprisingly inspirational. He is truly a unique leader.

The first surprise was that Admiral Mullen began our time together by describing the challenges that service men and women face. I am used to hearing leaders focus on their own or their organization's successes, not their pressure points. Granted military jobs require the supreme sacrifice--a willingness to lay down one's life, but Admiral Mullen's honesty was still unexpected. He spoke of his deep distress over the toll that today's wars are taking on the armed services, saying that things today are harder than anything he has experienced in his 42 years in the military: "We've never put more pressure on ourselves, the men and women in uniform...than we are right now." After listing a litany of his concerns, he admitted that in the end it is impossible to truly assess the toll: "there are some longer-term issues that we have yet to deal with...that we don't understand yet."

But it isn't just the service men and women who cause him concern. It is their families: "We see spouses at home very, very pressed--many of them, stressed out just as much as individuals in theater. We see families reflecting the symptoms of post-traumatic stress."

Admiral Mullen works hard at ensuring that he doesn't become isolated in his job as Chairman, reaching out to those who will tell him the truth. On his travels, he typically arranges time to talk with spouses, accompanied by his wife Deborah. "There's no group," he told me, "that's quicker to tell me what's really going on than a group of spouses." In this day and age, with our 24-hour news coverage and more routes around the gatekeepers who try to block the truth, it seems as if transparency should become more of a norm. Yet, one has just to look at the gulf oil spill and how those involved are trying to spin the story to see that transparency remains more of a slogan than a reality.

Another indication of Admiral Mullen's unique leadership style is the value he puts on the work of caring for families. He even compares the strains of being in a combat zone to the strains of raising children--of "handling all of the challenges that occur in normal family life." Again, we have always mouthed the rhetoric of caring for children as important, but when push comes to shove, organizational leaders generally put work first.

A third indication of his style is that he tries to remedy some of the toughest problems. He sees helping families as more than helping them with child care, education or careers, though these are very critical. He is well known for his February 2010 statement to the Senate Armed Service Committee on gays and lesbians: "It is my position that allowing gays and lesbians to serve openly would be the right thing to do. No matter how I look at this issue, I cannot escape being troubled by the fact that we have in place a policy which forces young men and women to lie about who they are in order to defend their fellow citizens." He has also worked to give women opportunities to serve on submarines and to increase the length of time between deployments.

The biggest surprise to me, however, was what he said about institutions versus people. He said:

Basically, we've grown up very focused on the institution. The institution tells me what to do. It tells me where to go. It tells me what my career path is, and then I, sort of, attach my own personal desires, my own personal interests. I think we're living in a time where we're going to have to change--to put people in the center.

Admiral Mullen feels that this shift is necessary because it people thrive, then institutions will thrive: "we will have a very healthy, very successful military in the future." But he admits, that this shift will not happen easily because it is a fundamental shift in how institutions operate--"it isn't going to happen overnight--certainly not in the military."

Admiral Mullen told me that he often speaks to business leaders because he feels that he has so much to learn from them. I left my interview at the Pentagon feeling just the reverse--that business leaders have so much to learn from this man in uniform who think that we have to put families at the center of the universe because it will benefit all concerned, including institutions. This is a truly a case study in a style of 21st century leadership we can all believe in.