As the business world is continuously reshaped through advances in technology, growth of new markets, and changing political landscapes, the issues that arise in both the public and private sectors have become increasingly complex. The international crises that dominate news headlines today–the emergence of the Islamic State, the ongoing war in Syria, and the crisis in Ukraine–will play a part in redefining global markets and impact how companies operate in the future. In a conversation with NACD Senior Advisor Jeffrey M. Cunningham, Gen. James L. Jones, USMC (Ret.), former national security advisor to President Barack Obama, Supreme Allied Commander Europe and Commander of the U.S. European Command, and 32nd Commandant of the Marine Corps, shared his perspectives on international policy and global competitiveness.
We are living in dangerous times. Terrorist groups are the common enemy, but unlike the uniformed antagonists this country faced in the conflicts of the 20th century, these insurgents are asymmetric, omnipresent, and far from an easily contained problem. “We need leadership,” Jones said. “And leadership has got to have moral courage and the dedication to do the right thing at the right time. If you wait too long it’s hard to put things back together.” The new challenge of American leadership is, however, forming coalitions to effectively address these problems on the battlefield, as well as in the boardroom.
Looking at the trajectory of the United States in the 21st century, Jones looked to the past. By 1950, the United States had evolved into a global power with considerable presence on the international stage. That standing, however, is currently in flux, namely because this is a century of competition. “We have economic challenges coming from China, the European Union, Brazil, India, a whole host of areas. And how we compete with those areas is going to dictate where we will be in 2050.”
To enjoy the level of success in 2050 that we enjoyed in 1950, Jones said that the public and private sectors need to work more closely together. “All of our competitors are joined at the hip between public and private interests, and we don’t do that very well,” he said. “The pillars of governance and rule of law need to play a large role in that.” To that end, he added: “I think we talk too much. Before you talk about tactics, you need to make sure you have a strategy.”
Jones also emphasized the need for leaders to foster constructive relationships. Reflecting on his time as national security advisor, he remarked on President Obama’s inclusiveness during cabinet meetings. Jones shared that regardless of politics, President Obama sought out the perspectives of everyone at the table and ensured that anyone who had equity in the issue at hand was heard. And on a global scale, Jones observed that personal relations between heads of state drive the relations between nations.
When asked for his perspective on Edward Snowden, a figure who is as revered as he is reviled, Jones commented: “I don’t have a lot of respect for people who take the coward’s way out. There’s a way to work within the system and taking a lesser traveled road [to say what you need to say] is, in my way of thinking, not honorable and not good for the country. I completely stand behind the leadership aspect of moral responsibility. Leaders are responsible for everything their units do or don’t do. And I think that’s true of the private sector, as well as the public sector. It’s a matter of standing up for the right thing.” He also emphasized the need for leaders to understand the meaning and the impact that their privileged positions carry. “It’s easy to stand up and take a bow, but there are times when you need to stand up and take a hit and you need to be willing to do that.”