North Dakota, Leadership, and What Not to Do: A Conversation with Admiral Stuart Munsch

Written by: Brady Drake

Stuart Munsch, a native of Oakes, North Dakota, is one of the most impressive people to come out of the state, period. As a four-star admiral commanding the U.S. Navy’s forces in Europe and Africa, he may be one of the most important people in the country.

We had the privilege of sitting down with Munsch in late July when he was in town for TEDxFargo.

Q: Looking at your resume, it seems like you could have done a lot of things in life, why join the military?

A: Well, it was really going to the service academies that I was interested in initially. The Naval Academy was ranked higher than West Point and the Air Force Academy so that is where I wanted to go.

Q: Were people in your family involved in the military?

A: Yes, but it was more about doing the hardest things I could do, and going to the academy was harder than going to college.

Q: What were you doing to challenge yourself prior to the Naval Academy?

A: I played sports in all seasons and was involved in lots of extracurricular activities and academic pursuits. I also strived for leadership positions within other organizations to make myself more competitive for an appointment.

3 Fav Books

Q: What was your time like in the Naval Academy?

A: I had a very fortunate experience there. It’s four years with a full academic load, just like a regular college. I was an electrical engineering major and I also took a tremendous amount of history courses. Most colleges, I would have been a double major with that. And then, there’s a heavy physical component—everybody is required to be in a sport. I found out I had a knack for pistol shooting. So I did that. There was also a lot of emphasis on leadership, of course. And so I did that as well. And then, ultimately, out of that good experience, I received the award for the top athlete in my class, and also the award for being the top leader in my class. I’m the only person who has ever received both of those. And then, I was fortunate to receive a Rhodes scholarship which sent me over to the United Kingdom.

*This interview has been edited for clarity and conciseness.

Q: What was the experience in the UK like?

A: That was terrific. That was a completely different mode of education. At the Naval Academy, we pretty much had a quiz every day on every subject. And at Oxford, it’s a week-long series of tests at the end of three years.

Q: Did you participate in any athletics while you were at Oxford?

I continued the pistol shooting there. We had a pretty good team. I’m quite proud to say I never lost to West Point when I was at the Naval Academy, and I never lost to Cambridge while I was at Oxford. And, in fact, between the two, for six consecutive years, I was on national champion teams.

I’m sure that was a very eye-opening experience to be able to go out there at such a young age.

Yes, absolutely. I had a chance to travel around Europe, which really broadens your horizons. The way they teach over there was very different as well. It was a tutorial method where you meet one-on-one or maybe two students with a professor. You do a tremendous amount of reading over a week and answer some essay questions and then you go meet for an hour with the tutor.

Q: What are some important lessons you learned during your time traveling around Europe?

A: I experienced a lot of different cultures and realized there are lots of different ways to do things. If you grow up in one single culture, you don’t have an awareness of other approaches to deal with issues. It also deepend my appreciation for history, of course. The academic piece also really sharpened my thinking and gave me a framework for subsequent learning the rest of my life.

Q: I have to imagine that ability to recognize other cultures and other ways of doing things helps you today when you have to lead people from all different walks of life.

A: Yes, absolutely. It’s a similar to the transition from North Dakota to the Naval Academy where all 50 states are represented as well.

An Impressive Resume

  • Naval Academy brigade commander
  • All-American pistol shooter
  • National Champion pistol shooter
  • Naval Academy graduate
  • Oxford University graduate
  • Whitehouse Fellowship selected

Q: What was your time like growing up in North Dakota?

A: My parents were both teachers and my father moved on to be a school administrator. I started out in Monango, which had about 125 people back then and has just a single family now. We went from there out to Ray, which is out west. We moved back to the southeastern part of the state when I started kindergarten in Kulm. I went through fifth grade there. Sixth grade onward, I went to school in Oakes. Growing up in these small towns meant you had to have a lot of accountability— everybody knew you. Oakes was the right size in that it offered a wide range of activities, but it wasn’t so big that you couldn’t be in everything you wanted to be like in some really big schools, it’s pretty competitive and hard to do that. I played football in the fall, basketball in the winter, track in the spring, and baseball in the summer. I was also involved in choir, public speaking, various competitions sponsored by civic organizations, class presidents, student council offices—things like that. The academics were also very solid. You didn’t have a tremendous range of courses like you do in bigger schools, but what was taught was taught very well. So, I had a real solid foundation going to the Naval Academy.

Q: What leadership advice do you have to give?

A: I think the most important things are:

  1. You need to be genuine. Be who you are, people will see through pretty quickly otherwise. They’ll appreciate that genuineness.
  2. Respect everyone. We work with people from many different walks of life and there’s a base level of respect for everyone.
  3. For those working in more senior positions, the real key is establishing a vision for your team or your organization. It’s important to know what you are trying to achieve, what the objectives are, why the organization exists, and why they should feel proud to be a part of the team.
  4. Focus on individual development. Because, ultimately, it’s people that are going to make your organization achieve whatever it achieves. So, you need to constantly be focusing on teaching and providing your employees opportunities to better themselves. That makes the whole organization better.

Q: How do you think the Navy helped you build those skills?

A: Some of that comes from being from a small town in North Dakota, to be honest. But the Naval Academy is a real leadership laboratory. Everybody is organized into various units of different sizes for you to practice your leadership skills to achieve things together as a team. It’s like a whole series of sports teams, if you will. And then, some of it is what we call small unit leadership, where you already know everybody that you’re working with. And then some people get the more rare opportunity to lead much larger organizations where you don’t know everyone. That takes a different style of leadership.

Q: I also feel like you can learn a lot about what not to do while working under someone’s leadership. Are their any lessons you’ve learned doing this?

A: I don’t know about that, but there are some common mistakes leaders tend to make.

  • Some people are too aloof, too separate from their organizations. They’re too isolated. That’s sort of an older style of leadership to have that degree of separation. I don’t think that works very well today at all. People don’t feel like they’re part of the team then. It’s too hierarchical. We’re pretty flat with how we organize things today.
  • There used to be a lot more in the way of negative approaches. Over a prolonged period, that never works—that actually tears down an organization. You know, sometimes in an urgent circumstance, you have to get somebody’s attention. It’s not dissimilar from a sports team where the coach might make it clear he’s not happy about something that you did. But in the long run, you need to have a positive optimistic organization.
  • When I was at the Naval Academy, there was a Royal Marine from the UK who fought in the Falklands, who came and spoke to us. And one of the real leadership lessons from him was the importance of instilling your personality in your team, so that they know what to do when you’re not there. Because they understand how you think and what you would want. And that only comes through interpersonal action.

David McCullough “Mornings on Horseback”
Admiral Munsch is a proponent of leaders studying Theodore Roosevelt. A book he recommends starting with is “Mornings on Horseback” by David McCullough.

  • One of our naval aviators was a POW (Prisoner of War) in Vietnam—McGrath was his last name. He spoke with us and gave us a lesson that has stuck with me. When he became a POW, he had this mindset that this wasn’t supposed to happen, they’re not supposed to treat me this way. He fought the system the whole time, which meant he got treated all the worse by his captors. However, one day, he came to the realization that he needed to figure out the environment that he was in and after that, he could move to master it in a way that would be more effective. So, when you come into any organization, take some time to understand the environment that you are in. Don’t immediately try to impose some preconceived ideas you had on how it should be. You’ve got to work with what you have and what the reality is. Once you understand that, you can start to move it into the right direction.

Q: Is there anything else you would like to say to our readers?

A: There’s quite a bit of activity in the state now related to Theodore Roosevelt, president and one-time resident here in North Dakota. There’s the presidential library being built out by Dickinson and then there’s a Theodore Roosevelt Center at Dickinson State. He was a really a remarkable individual who also was very focused on leadership. He is a very good person to study. I think the state will move to the forefront of the nation in bringing out his legacy and his approach to things. His connection with the Navy is that he had a lot to do with the building of ships. During that timeframe, where there was a naval race going on between Britain and Germany, he brought the US up to speed. He rebuilt the Naval Academy. And then he took that new Navy and sent it around the world to send the message that the United States is here and we’re a global entity. But he also did so many other things. He established the National Park System. He established the Food and Drug Administration to make sure we had safe food. He had the Panama Canal. And he has also said he never would have been president if he never would have had his time in North Dakota. I would encourage business leaders to study him. There are a tremendous number of biographies about him to check out. David McCullough’s is a very good starting point.

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Brady is the Editorial Director at Spotlight Media in Fargo, ND.