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Abstract: This leadership case package, a written case with a podcast supplement, describes the biggest challenges to confront four-star Admiral James G. Stavridis during two of his tours of duty-one as commander of U.S. Southern Command, or “SouthCom,” the U.S. Defense Department’s regional command for Central America, South America, and parts of the Caribbean) and one as the military commander of NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization). Stavridis came to SouthCom with a reform agenda. Understanding that he had a short window to act, he tried to impose certain cultural and organizational changes on the Command, relying on traditional military top-down compliance. He got compliance—but only temporarily; his reforms were rolled back as soon as he left the Command. Learning from this disappointment, Stavridis took a very different approach at NATO. Appointed Supreme Allied Commander of NATO in 2009, Stavridis immediately confronted a crisis: the U.S.-led Afghan mission was failing and losing support from NATO leaders. What’s more, NATO was not a top-down organization. Decisions were made by consensus—and skills of persuasion were consequently paramount. The written case relates Stavridis’ reflections about the challenges he faced in SouthCom and at NATO, and the strategies he employed to address them. A 20-minute podcast supplement (“Reflections on the Inner Life of a Leader: Adm James Stavridis in Conversation with Prof. Robert Wilkinson,” transcript available) features a more general discussion about tricky challenges in leadership—such as how to deal with a person with whom you deeply disagree; how to structure key processes to gain agreement, how to keep emotions in check in difficult moments; and what personal practices help to keep an extraordinarily demanding life in balance.
Teaching Objectives: Designed for a course in leadership, this case can be used to teach about the important role of leadership communication and the complex art of persuasion. In particular, it was designed to foster a discussion about how leaders articulate, to themselves, their own role as a leader and then, with care and subtlety, how they develop and articulate a compelling leadership message for those they need to persuade.