Senator John McCain’s Speech at the Naval Academy (The Forrestal Lecture Series)

Thanks to an update in my inbox from Jacqui Murray’s blog USNA or Bust linked to her! page, I was alerted to a speech by Senator John McCain at the Naval Academy as part of the Forrestal Lecture Series on March 28, 2012.

In his speech, Sen. McCain discussed the differences between leadership and management. He believes the nation is producing too many managers and not enough leaders – citing the increased number of MBA graduates as proof of this trend. Being a manager is easy, as the manager must merely maintain the status quo. Leaders must motivate and inspire subordinates to reach new limits.[i]  McCain said, “Today, we hear a lot about ‘management,’ and not nearly enough about leadership.  That worries me.  One thing of which I am certain – there is a great difference between managers and leaders. Competent managers are useful in any endeavor.  But they are plentiful. Our nation graduates over 150,000 MBAs every year. But leaders … true leaders … are rare.”[ii]

Lamenting the military’s one strike policy on mistakes, Sen. McCain noted that most great U.S. Navy leaders would not have made it out of the lower ranks had they served in today’s armed forces. This intolerance towards failure of any kind has caused our military to become more risk averse than ever before.[i-a]  “Halsey, Nimitz, and Spruance were leaders…If any one of them had opted for caution rather than courage when their moment of testing came, we would have lost the Battle of Midway,” McCain said.[ii-a]

The speech discusses the quality of leadership in the military and how officers in the armed services are affected by the conduct of American foreign policy in how they do their job.  McCain speaks to the importance to develop leaders, as he provides a historical perspective of leadership in the Naval and Marine Corps services during World War II.  Rather than provide you excerpts of the speech in this post, and risk taking statements out of proper context, I am providing the entire text of the speech here.  Although I am eager to highlight the important parts of this speech for you, I encourage you to find the true value of this speech for yourself.  It truly is a great read.

You can also see the video of the speech HERE, via the U.S. Naval Academy Alumni Association & Foundation.


Thank you. It’s always a pleasure to return to Annapolis, or, as some of my classmates often refer to the Naval Academy during my years as a midshipman, the scene of the crime.

John McCain at the U.S. Naval Academy, mid-1950s

I’ve had the privilege of delivering the Forrestal Lecture before, and I’m well aware of the many distinguished speakers who have shared that privilege with me. I’m humbled to be in their company, but I can claim a distinction I doubt any of them possess. I’m pretty sure I’m the only speaker who graduated from the Academy fifth from the bottom of my class. And I’m positive I’m the only one who would admit it.

However, I’m not going to regale you with stories about how I managed that dubious accomplishment. They are hardly an example I would recommend to you. And I only recall them because I like to remind myself from time to time I wasn’t always as old as I am now or as concerned about my public reputation.

Instead, out of respect for you and this distinguished forum, I thought I would talk about something more relevant to you; something I began to learn here, even if I didn’t realize it at the time, and which I came to appreciate more as a navy officer and public officeholder – leadership.

I want to discuss first the quality of leadership in our military, and then in the conduct of American foreign policy. The latter is not the responsibility of officers in the armed services, but it is certainly affected by how well you do your job. 

I can trace my family’s military history to the American Revolution, when an ancestor served on General Washington’s staff.  McCain’s have served in every war in our nation’s history, most of them in the army until my grandfather had the good sense to break with family tradition and seek an appointment to Annapolis.

In 1936, the oldest aviator in the United States Navy received his wings at Pensacola Naval Air Station.  He was a fifty-two-year-old Navy captain, who had received his commission thirty years earlier.  He wasn’t a very good flyer then; nor would he ever be.  He was reported to have cracked up five planes during his flight training, and a subordinate once remarked that ‘the base prayed for his safe return every time he flew.’

McCain’s grandfather "Slew" (left) and father "Jack" on board a U.S. Navy ship in Tokyo Bay, c. September 2, 1945

But for the remainder of his Navy career and his life, naval aviation was my grandfather’s greatest passion, and his contributions to its emergence as an essential, and, at times, decisive element of American military power was his greatest accomplishment.

My father wanted to fly, too, but he was rejected and became a submariner, and eventually Commander-in-Chief of U.S. forces in the Pacific. Two of my sons earned their wings at Pensacola: my oldest son, Doug, in 1985, and my son, Jack, earlier this year. My youngest son, Jimmy, enlisted in the Marine Corps out of high school, and served in Iraq.

So, when I speak about leadership in our armed forces, I’m more than a little familiar with the subject. I was raised in the Navy. I’ve been around military officers all my life. For most of half a century, the Navy was the only world I really knew. I’ve been privileged to witness examples of courageous, inspiring leadership in the most difficult of circumstances. I know what it is and I know what it isn’t.

One of the benefits of living as long as I have, is that you get to see a lot of history in the making. And if you are paying attention, you can learn the lessons of what we did right, and what we did wrong. Both should be carefully studied.

In a little over two months, we’ll commemorate the 70th anniversary of the Battle of Midway, when barely six months after the attack on Pearl Harbor, we faced an enemy supremely confident in their ability – not just to defeat, but to annihilate – the battered remnants of Halsey’s Pacific Fleet.  We were overwhelmingly outnumbered and outgunned.  The Japanese brought 8 carriers, we had barely three; they had 11 battleships, we had none.  And the Japanese had the best fighter aircraft in the Pacific – the Mitsubishi Zero – that easily dominated the slower, less agile TBDs, SBDs, F4Fs, and Marine F2As.

Making matters worse, our forces were plagued by faulty equipment. The Mk 13 torpedo was notoriously unreliable. In fact, not a single torpedo dropped at Midway by Torpedo 3, Torpedo 6 or Torpedo 8 even detonated. And the new electrical arming system on the SBD’s had the annoying habit of randomly releasing the bomb when the Master Arm switch was selected. 

But in the end, the battle turned not on numbers or equipment – but rather on the actions – and the leadership – of some truly extraordinary men. What they did at Midway has become the stuff of legend.

Men like LCDR John Waldron, skipper of Torpedo 8, who led his 15 TBD Devastators against one of the enemy carriers at wave-top height and barely 100 knots, while trying to fend off the far more capable – and deadlier – Zeros.  With no fighter cover of his own, Waldron’s fate was sealed.  His last transmission to his squadron-mates was simple: ‘We will go in. We won’t turn back. We will attack. Good luck.’

And men like Marine Major ‘Joe’ Henderson, who led his mixed squadron of F4Fs and F2As against the carrier Hiryu.  Struck by anti-aircraft fire, his aircraft in flames, Henderson pressed the attack – on what would be his last flight.

And LCDR Wade McClusky, who, despite being dangerously low on fuel, kept searching for the Japanese carriers until he found them, and whose extraordinary leadership – according to Admiral Nimitz – ‘decided the fate of our carrier task force and our forces at Midway.’The Battle of Midway was won not by superior equipment, and certainly not because we outnumbered the Japanese. We won because of the stout hearts and uncommon leadership that for one hundred years has been the hallmark of the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps. 

My grandfather commanded a carrier task force in the Pacific during WWII. He made it a point to talk with pilots after they returned from a strike, asking them, ‘Do you think we’re doing the right thing?’ He knew that if you ever stopped learning from your men, then you stopped leading.

Today, we hear a lot about ‘management,’ and not nearly enough about leadership.  That worries me.  One thing of which I am certain – there is a great difference between managers and leaders. Competent managers are useful in any endeavor.  But they are plentiful. Our nation graduates over 150,000 MBAs every year. But leaders … true leaders … are rare. And they are a far more important asset than managers.

  • Leaders inspire people; managers, well, they ‘manage’ people and assets.
  • Leaders think about protecting and promoting their people.
  • Leaders take charge and accept responsibility; managers often turn to a higher authority for fear of making a wrong decision. 
  • Leaders take risks when necessary; managers are taught to avoid risks whenever possible.

Halsey, Nimitz, and Spruance were leaders. Henderson, McClusky, and Waldron were leaders. If any one of them had opted for caution rather than courage when their moment of testing came, we would have lost the Battle of Midway.

In recent years, I worry we’ve allowed ourselves to concentrate too much on producing competent managers rather than the next generation of leaders. I worry we’ve focused so much on strategy and tactics that we spend too little time developing the leadership skills of those who really decide the outcome of battles.

My father used to say that technical experts are a ‘dime a dozen.’ You can always find a man who can tell you how many foot-pounds of force are in a piston, or what the aerodynamic effects on a plane will be at a certain airspeed and altitude. But, he said, ‘The business of leadership is another matter entirely. It’s one of the most difficult subjects there is – to inspire in people subordinate to you, the desire to do a better job.’ That is where leadership trumps management – in the art of inspiring others to perform far beyond their self-imposed limits.

Few managers, however competent, will ever inspire people to endure the hardships and make the sacrifices that are the price we pay for the privilege of defending our great nation. 

Please don’t mistake me. Our armed services will need competent managers and a lot of technical expertise as we face the challenges to our security in this rapidly changing world. And I know quite a few inspiring leaders who serve in uniform today. I just want to encourage the understanding that our armed services are first and foremost in the business of leadership. 

I encourage everyone who will have the privilege to defend our country and its interests in the 21st Century to study the example of our military leaders in the last century. Study their lives and their leadership styles, and strive to be like them. Learn to inspire the men and women who will serve under you. Encourage them, give them meaningful responsibility, allow them room to grow, to make mistakes and to learn from them. Be slow to judge, and remember that many of our most revered leaders would never have survived in a ‘one strike’ or ‘zero defect’ environment. Not only our nation, but the world has a lot a riding on your judgment and leadership.

These are fascinating times we live in, as the United States confronts challenges very different from the challenges of the last century. My generation served America’s interests in the Cold War, a dangerous but comparatively stable time when the world was divided between East and West, and few doubted the necessity and ability of American leadership. Today, the world order isn’t bipolar, nor, thankfully, is it maintained by the threat of mutually assured destruction. But it is more complicated, and changes rapidly thanks to the revolutionary technological advances that will define the age. It sometimes seems like there really isn’t any ‘order’ to the world’s affairs.

But there is. And, contrary to assertions that American power and influence is declining irreversibly, it is an order shaped by American values, interests and leadership, and we will continue to lead it as long as we have the will to do so.

For all the challenges we face, for all the changes occurring in the world, I am convinced that America still has the greatest capacity to lead the world; that most of the world wants us to lead; and that it is necessary, for our future and the future of humanity, that we lead.  

Globalization, the spectacular economic growth of China and India, Brazil and others, China’s growing political and military assertiveness, competition for energy resources, the financial crisis of 2008, and the deep recession and weak recovery that followed, our mounting national debt, two long and difficult wars, are often cited among other reasons as contributing factors in America’s diminished capacity for world leadership.

But for all our problems, we still stand the best chance of not just surviving global changes but using them to advance our progress and strengthen our position in the world. The rise of new economic powers – China, India, Brazil and others – doesn’t have to come at the cost of our opportunities and influence in the world.

We are still the most innovative country in the world, and likely to remain so for the foreseeable future. Future technological advances will affect our fortunes and the world’s as profoundly as did the revolution in communications technology, most of which was invented here.

Our economy is still the largest in the world. And, as Robert Kagan has pointed out, even if in twenty years or so the China has a larger economy than ours, our relative economic strength will still be greater because our per capita GDP will be higher. No other market is freer than ours. Our standard of living is still the highest. Our universities are still considered the world’s finest. The changes that have enabled countries to generate greater economic growth today than in the United States are changes that have mostly embraced American economic values. And the biggest political changes occurring in the world today are consistent with American political values.

Name another economic philosophy that is as widely adopted as free market capitalism. Name another political philosophy that is gaining as many adherents in the nations of the world as Western liberalism. You can’t. Communism, fascism, socialism, all the ‘isms’ that have seriously challenged the ideals of free peoples and free markets have come and mostly gone. And when has the rising prosperity of other nations ever presented more of a disadvantage than an opportunity for us?

Our military power, despite the burden of two long wars, and the constraints our budget deficits and national debt impose, remains vastly superior to the militaries of all other nations. To quote Robert Kagan again, the U.S. ‘is far and away the most powerful nation the world has ever known, and there has been no decline in America’s relative military capacity – at least not yet.’ We spend less on defense spending as a percentage of GDP than we did in the 1950s and 1980s, but we still have the most advanced, experienced, and capable military in the world. 

We obviously have a greater capacity to influence the international system than any other country. But does the world still want us to lead? Yes, yes, yes.

I travel a lot at the expense of the American taxpayer, and everywhere I go, Europe, the Middle East, Asia, I hear again and again, from government, military and business leaders, and from ordinary people, struggling to gain the freedoms and opportunities that Americans believe are their birthright, that American leadership is indispensible to their interests and to the stability and prosperity of the world. I’ve never heard anyone welcome the idea that China or any other power should replace America’s influence in the world.

I’ve spoken with many people risking their lives to bring an end to autocracy and institute government by the consent of the governed in the various movements that comprise the Arab Spring. Their message is always the same. Yes, we want America’s help, but not just when it’s safe, but when we need it most, as the old regimes fight desperately to hang on to power. They want to know that we act not only in our self-interest, but in solidarity with the cause of human freedom wherever it is threatened. That’s why I am so concerned that the U.S. is failing to exercise leadership in Syria.

Clearly, our interests and values would be significantly advanced should the Syrian people bring an end to the Assad regime. Should the regime fall, it would be a body blow to the regional influence of our most dangerous adversary in the Middle East, Iran. Assad’s Syria is Iran’s only ally in the Middle East, and provides vital support to Hezbollah and Hamas. It’s murdering its citizens by the thousands. We must act urgently to support Syrian opposition with deeds and well as words to counter the support Assad receives from Iran and Russia. Soon, it might be too late to help.

It is by no means a given that the success of the Arab Spring will result over time in stable democracies governed by the rule of law that protects fundamental human rights for all, and a more stable, less violent Middle East. Islamic extremists might hijack revolutions that were fought to achieve basic human rights and political self-determination. The U.S. can influence their direction, but our influence will be directly related to the extent of our support for opposition movements in their hour of need and not just in the wake of their success.

That brings us to my third and final point: the necessity of American leadership. 

This world poses many challenges, but if offers even more opportunities. We can thrive in a global economic order of rapidly emerging and competing economic powers, as long as we exercise the leadership to establish its rules, and change our own practices that undermine the productivity and competitiveness of our economy. We can enhance our own security and increase our influence by maintaining our military superiority and by supporting the aspirations to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness of oppressed people in whatever region of the world they happen to live.

The rumors of our decline can be proven premature, if we have the will, the fortitude and confidence to do in this century, what we did in the last: help make this world another, better place than we found it. We will only fail if we give up, and become the first American generation to accept our destiny rather than make it. That would be a tragic fate not only for us, but for the progress of the human race.

These are your challenges and opportunities more than they are mine. I am nearing the end of a long career in our country’s service. You will soon begin yours. I envy you, and trust you will make the most of your opportunity. You better. The whole world is counting on you.

Thank you.[ii-b]

[i-a] “Senator John McCain Speaks at Naval Academy | USNI Blog.” USNI Blog. Accessed 9 April 2012.

[ii-a,b] “Remarks by Senator John McCain at the Naval Academy as Part of the Forrestal Lecture Series – March 28, 2012” – U.S. Senator John McCain – Arizona – – Accessed 9 April 2012.  Accessed via John McCain’s Facebook page at on the post link

8 Responses to “Senator John McCain’s Speech at the Naval Academy (The Forrestal Lecture Series)”

  1. Thanks, Dale. For two reasons, one it’s always inspirational to hear this John McCain, the Naval Officer rather than the timid Presidential candidate (with a few exceptions). and two, it ties directly into something stewing in my mind that I’m not ready to talk about yet.


  2. […] 1… […]


  3. My daughter was at the Naval Academy on one of his visits. He actually came in her classroom and taught the Mids–as only McCain can do. An impressive man.


  4. Greeting from over the world. excellent post I shall return for more.


  5. Mark Culp Says:

    Sen. McCain served on my ship, but years earlier, the USS Forrestal. I served on her from’80 to ’84. The story of his bravery during her fire, could fill up another book! Haze gray & underway Senator!


  6. […] Senator John McCain’s Speech at the Naval Academy (The Forrestal Lecture Series) ( Share this:EmailPrintFacebookTwitterLinkedInStumbleUponDiggRedditTumblrPinterestLike this:LikeBe the first to like this post. […]


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