Adm. James Stavridis on what decision-making in the heat of battle can teach civilians

Download Audio
Supreme Allied Commander Europe (SACEUR) Admiral James Stavridis during the departure Ceremony for OTAN Rapid Deployable Corps - Italy bound for Afghanistan at Ugo Mara Barracks on January 10, 2013 in Solbiate Olona, Italy. (Pier Marco Tacca/Getty Images)
Supreme Allied Commander Europe (SACEUR) Admiral James Stavridis during the departure Ceremony for OTAN Rapid Deployable Corps - Italy bound for Afghanistan at Ugo Mara Barracks on January 10, 2013 in Solbiate Olona, Italy. (Pier Marco Tacca/Getty Images)

In war, a commander’s decisions have consequences. Lost battles can mean lost wars.

Retired Admiral James Stavridis served in the U.S. military, and as former Supreme Allied Commander of NATO.

He says leaders have to learn how to think, plan, decide — and act — in moments of high stress and danger. Sometimes, that means risking everything.

“We see Ukraine and Russia locked into a war. We see two leaders who have risked it all," he says. "On one side, Vladimir Putin ... is risking his future and his nation's future in many ways. On the other side of the lines, we see Vladimir Zelenskyy, who is risking it all in a very different way and for very different reasons.”

Admiral James Stavridis knows what it takes to make decisions in battle.

Stavridis says the things needed to make good decisions in war are not that different from what's needed to make good decisions when facing challenges of everyday life. He'll tell us about it.


Retired Admiral James Stavridis, retired as a four-star admiral. Former Supreme Allied Commander at NATO. Managing director of the Carlyle Group. His new book is To Risk It All: Nine Conflicts and the Crucible of Decision. (@stavridisj)

Book Excerpt

From TO RISK IT ALL: Nine Conflicts and the Crucible of Decision. Published by arrangement with Penguin Press, a member of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2022 by James Stavridis.

Interview Highlights

On writing a book about lessons we can draw from naval decisions

“First and foremost, people ought to write about what they actually know about. You know, what a concept. And as a naval officer, eventually becoming a naval admiral, I studied each of these situations very deeply. But what occurred to me as you teed up so nicely in that introduction, is that many of these lessons are portable. In other words, just because they are framed in the book in a naval context means that they can also be played when you're facing a moment of real crisis in your the life.

"Example would be an active shooter situation. How about an automobile accident late at night? You're driving by it. What about if you were on a beach and someone suddenly is drowning, and there are no lifeguards this summer, because of lack of lifeguards? But you're a pretty good swimmer. You know, these are moments of real crisis. And I think, again, the lessons from the book are quite transportable.”

On an example of a split-second decision spilling into a larger conflict 

"Let me give you another example from my own experience. Let's go back to the 1980s, mid 1980s, and the U.S. Navy is escorting oil tankers in and out of the Arabian Gulf. And my job at that time, I'm the tactical action officer on an Aegis cruiser, so much capability to shoot down incoming aircraft. We see an incoming aircraft. Many in the ship believed it to be an Iranian jet that was coming to attack us. We were in and around the Strait of Hormuz. I had the firing key in my hand. We just about took that shot.

"Something told me to hold back. My captain reached over and kind of put his hand on my forearm and we held back, knowing that if it was an Iranian, the possibility existed that it could have attacked us. We didn't take the shot. We didn't shoot down that air contact that we saw very clearly on our radar. That turned out to be an Iranian civilian aircraft, an Airbus full of civilians. We held back and didn't take that shot.

"Tragically, in that same campaign, some months later, another cruiser ... took that shot in very similar circumstances, shot down a civilian aircraft. One of the most tragic days in the history, in my view, of the U.S. Navy. The first instance is an example of where doing nothing was the right decision. In the second instance, a tactical action officer felt the need to defend his ship. He took the shot and it ended tragically. So yes, there are many instances where moments of decision and crisis can turn on doing nothing, which avoids the kind of tragedy I outlined a moment ago."

On big takeaways from 'To Risk It All'  

"I feel as though that's a very good tactical list of how you could structure decisions you have to make about very huge things in your life, like who you're going to marry, where are you going to go to school? What job are you going to take on? Where is your career going? I think there are also four moments of real crisis and stress, as we talked about that moment when you are in a church and a gunman comes in. Think of Dr. John Cheng several weeks ago, one of these terrible active shooter situations in Laguna Woods, California. He's 52 years old. He's got two children. He's in church with his mother. A shooter walks in.

"He charges the shooter to protect the congregation and the congregation is able to subdue the shooter. Dr. John Cheng is the only person killed. He becomes a real hero in that moment. But let's step back from that list of things. And let me just tell you two big things. And one is you have to know what you value. You have to know what you value. And you can't decide that on the spur of the moment. What I mean by that is you have to know, like Zelenskyy does, how deeply you value your country. You have to know how you value your community, your parents, the way Dr. John Cheng did.

"You have to know and think about what you really value in life, and that takes time to understand that. And then the second big thing that applies to all of this is you have to know yourself. You got to know whether you have the ability. Physically, emotionally, in terms of your tolerance for risk, to take on a very big challenge. And again, that can be as applicable as you're standing on the beach. Someone is drowning out there, but you're not a strong swimmer. You've got to know that about yourself. You have to have self-knowledge. So know what you value and know yourself. Those are, I think, the two uber takeaways here."

On tactics for good decision-making in American politics

"Unfortunately, in today's political climate, I think, for example, too many decisions are based on emotion, without really examining all the facts. Too many decisions are being made without thoroughly scrubbing the intelligence. And back to your comment about assumptions and facts. We're having a great deal of problems in American politics these days, in my view, differentiating between what people at opposite ends of the political spectrum assume is correct, and what is actually factually correct.

"And then third and finally, just to pick three things, our decision-makers tend to get locked into positions, and then seem unable to change their mind. And a perfect example, of course, is unfolding in front of us in the the world of active shooters and the horrible events of Uvalde. You would hope more of our leaders would find the courage and the ability to change their minds, if they have been locked up against various aspects of of gun safety, and various aspects of background checks and red flag laws.

"Too many of our leaders seem locked into these positions, despite the fact that poll after poll shows the American public has a positive view toward many of these kinds of restrictions. So I think our politics could do with less emotion, more sensible gathering of intelligence, differentiation of fact and assumption, and the ability to change minds when facts were doing so."

On how to create a system where the best decisions can be made 

"I'll give you three practical ideas, and then a thought that's a little less practical in the immediate moment, but may come to pass. The first is we need to do more to celebrate service, to celebrate those who serve others. And here I don't mean simply the military. And thank you for your service. I mean consciously celebrating those who service as teachers, as diplomats, as police officers, as firefighters, as medical personnel on the front lines of COVID. There's a lot to celebrate in terms of service, and we should incentivize that, talk about it and celebrate our successes. Because those are the opposite of the challenges you just made. The idea and culture of service.

"Number two, education. This gets into assumptions and facts. We put a supercomputer known as an iPhone in the hands of a child when he or she is nine and a half years old, nine and a half years old. We don't educate them to differentiate between the flow of garbage on the Internet, the lies, the fake, the assumption and the reality. And that can be done as an educational aspect. It it also gets into the idea of everything from apprenticeship programs, a whole educational system could could grapple with some of these challenges.

"And third and finally, you know, there is the good old fashioned solution here. It's called the ballot box, and that is finding candidates who do exemplify those kind of conditions. And I know you're very skeptical about that, and so am I. And here I come on to maybe not realistic this moment, but in the future, you know, it does not say in the Constitution that there shall always be two political parties, Republican and Democrat. We didn't start out with them. We started out with Whigs, Federalists, nationalists. We've had a lot of parties in this country over time. Maybe we need to break the lock on the two ends of the political spectrum."

This program aired on June 6, 2022.


Headshot of Meghna Chakrabarti

Meghna Chakrabarti Host, On Point
Meghna Chakrabarti is the host of On Point.


Headshot of Stefano Kotsonis

Stefano Kotsonis Senior Producer, On Point
Stefano Kotsonis is a senior producer for WBUR's On Point.



More from On Point

Listen Live