WASHINGTON, Feb. 3, 2009 - Talk to just about anyone at the U.S. Southern Command staff, and they'll describe their commander, Navy Adm. James G. Stavridis, as a renaissance man.
He's a voracious reader, an author, a whiz on the tennis and squash courts and a linguist who, after mastering French and Spanish, now is studying Portuguese so he can communicate with his Brazilian counterparts in their native tongue.
Stavridis also has embraced technology, becoming the first combatant commander to use Facebook and a personal blog to convey the importance of partnership and cooperation to confront threats facing Latin America and the Caribbean. It's a message he shares every time he travels to the 45 countries and territories in his area of focus.
In a region highly unlikely to experience all-out war, Stavridis calls communication the most important tool in his arsenal. "In this hemisphere, we are in the business of ideas, not missiles," he said. "Our main battery, so to speak, is communication."
Stavridis' focus on communication begins in his West Miami headquarters. After 33 years of military service, he told American Forces Press Service, he's learned that being a leader demands being able to communicate vision and expectations.
"You have to be the 'writer in chief,' and you have to put your own pen to the paper -- or in these days, your own fingertips to the keyboard," he said. The bottom line, he said, is that a leader must "own the message" and be able to articulate it.
Stavridis solicits feedback, too, keeping the communication lines open in both directions. He holds near-weekly all-hands meetings with his headquarters staff and frequently updates and responds to his online blog report, "In the Americas." He also circulates routinely throughout the headquarters to check in with staffers at every level, and he schedules time with U.S. embassy country teams when visiting the region to hear directly from them.
His advice to U.S. Merchant Marine Academy graduates at their commencement in June summed up his openness to feedback. "Do not be afraid to question your seniors," he told the class. "Even as the youngest member of the team, you need to have the curiosity, the commitment and the courage to stand up and be part of the leadership conversation."
"Few things are more vital to an organization," he added, "than young officers and leaders who have the moral courage to help shape the direction in which the organization is headed, and then the strength of character to see it through."
The message reflects the commander's philosophy Stavridis introduced when he became the first Navy officer to command SOUTHCOM in October 2006.
That philosophy, prominently posted on the command's Web site, spells his expectations of his staff as well as himself: civility, quiet confidence, creativity, teamwork and collaboration, determination, honesty and integrity.
They're the same qualities Stavridis began honing as a brigade leader during his senior year at the Naval Academy, and that earned him the Navy League's John Paul Jones Award for Inspirational Leadership in 1998 during Destroyer Squadron 21's deployment to the Arabian Gulf.
Today, this leadership style sets the tone for his command at Southcom.
"I would put civility at the top of the list," Stavridis said, emphasizing the benefits of a friendly, collegial workplace that brings out the best in its people.
"It's a word we don't use enough in our society," he continued. "It means taking an approach where you never lose your temper and you are polite and kind to everybody around you. You bring the best of yourself to the workplace and try to rise above the daily pressures. And you
encourage everyone in your organization to take that same approach."
Stavridis also calls on his staff to demonstrate calm and steadiness without letting egos impede progress. He encourages a never-ending quest for improvement and a refusal to give up when the going gets tough. He urges teamwork, and demands that his people abide by the rules and tell the truth without flinching.
If these qualities sound straight out of a textbook on leadership, it could be from one Stavridis penned himself. Since his commissioning at the U.S. Naval Academy in 1976, he has written or co-written "Command at Sea," "Watch Officer's Guide: A Handbook for all Watch Officers," "Destroyer Captain: Lessons of a First Command," and "Division Officer's Guide."
Stavridis said he took many of his leadership lessons from heroes in his own life. He counts among those heroes his father, retired Marine Corps Col. P.G. Stavridis; Navy Adm. Mike Mullen, the Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman who, as a lieutenant, served as Stavridis' company officer at the U.S. Naval Academy; and retired Navy legend Vice Adm. Cutler Dawson,
Stavridis' long-term mentor.
Stavridis said he also takes inspiration from historical leaders. He considers Army Gen. George C. Marshall "a profoundly good leader who was interagency before interagency was cool." And he admires Winston Churchill, not just for his intellect and sheer energy, but also "for his ability to communicate and craft a message."
The biggest lesson he said he takes from these heroes is that a leader's job is to serve.
"If there is an absolute piece of bedrock" to his leadership philosophy, Stavridis said, "that's it."
"Leadership is about service," he explained. "The job of a leader is to understand what all of the people in his or her organization are seeking to achieve in their lives and how they are trying to reach their goals. The leader is the facilitator who, in this sense, is the servant to the crew."
The result, Stavridis said, is an organization that shares a common vision and works together to achieve it.
"I believe in the Wikipedia concept," he said, referring to the online encyclopedia that depends on the public for its entries. "The way Wikipedia was built was through millions and millions of people contributing together. And that's what a leader can facilitate, creating a Wikipedia-like thinking within the organization.
"Because none of us -- and no leader -- is as smart as all of us thinking together," he said.