The civil-rights riots of the 1960s marked a defining moment for Admiral Michael Mullen. The former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who was just 19 years old at the time, says that the events he witnessed opened his eyes to a subject he knew very little about, and that fueled his desire to learn more about people and discover the importance of diver- sity. Before retiring at the end of September and what he refers to as “going to bed for a while,” Mullen sat down in an exclusive interview with DiversityInc CEO Luke Visconti just before the 10th anniversary of 9/11. Visconti is a veteran himself; he served eight years on active duty as a naval aviator, with two in the reserves, and currently is on the Chief of Naval Operations Executive Panel. He was recently appointed to the Intelligence Community Diversity Leadership Advisory Board.
Adm. Mullen discussed with Visconti his experience with diversity both in and prior to the Navy and how he has tried
to nurture an environment where all people have the opportunity to excel. During his more than 40-year military tenure, the admiral has served as a cross-cultural mentor and a role model for young recruits, and he and his wife, Deborah,
have been advocates of the needs of service members and their families, as well as for the equity of traditionally underrepresented groups in the Navy. Mullen’s focus on civil rights and reducing discrimination, especially toward Blacks and
women, has helped the Navy reassess some of its long-standing policies.
VISCONTI What in your early life or military career
made diversity important to you?
ADM. MULLEN Probably just growing up in the ’60s,
and certainly when I came in the Navy in the late ’60s
and ’70s. I was exposed in ways I hadn’t anticipated to
tremendous racial strife, not just in the country but in
the Navy specifically. I also was raised to be very
focused on people, very focused on the value
of people. It was a great opportunity when
I was a young officer to learn a whole lot
more about people.
I actually grew up in a pretty isolated environment in Southern California,
and going to sea, going into Vietnam in the
Vietnam War and being exposed to other
people around the world just opened up a
world of both education and people from different backgrounds that I found to be very important.
I was exposed early to challenges, and I wanted to
explore that space, so as a young officer, I did. In doing
that, I found out that people are people, and I pretty
much have been talent-driven my whole life. You need
opportunities to see how people are going to do, so I
tried to create as many of those for as many people as I
WATCHING WATTS BURN
VISCONTI Can you think of a defining moment that
made you really just have an epiphany?
Watts burn [in the civil-rights riot] not very far from
where I lived, but I knew very little about it. It could
have been a place far, far away. I mean, that was a really
signature moment for me; something was going on but
I didn’t understand. I was 19 years old at the time, but
I do remember that and it pushed me in a direction to
find out a whole lot more about what was going on.
VISCONTI That’s interesting. So you saw [the
riots] and understood that you didn’t understand it?
ADM. MULLEN: I clearly didn’t. But that’s
about all I understood as a 19-year-old. I’d
been in and out of that part of Los Angeles
when I was young. I was a basketball play-
er and loved sports, so I would go to sporting
events in that part of town. I had no clue about
how people lived, about what their challenges were,
about the prejudices that existed at the time. It really
did open up an area that I knew I needed to know more
VISCONTI When I was on the Diversity Senior
Advisory Group and you became CNO [Chief Naval
Officer], I asked Captain Syd Abernethy (who, at the
time, headed the U.S. Navy’s diversity program), “What
do you think about Admiral Mullen?” He said, “He’s the
real deal. I personally know several Black officers that
he has personally mentored.” What created that desire
for you to mentor people cross-culturally?
ADM. MULLEN: When I was a midshipman at the Naval
Academy. I finished my first year there in the summer of
1965. I came home on leave after a cruise. I lived about
20 miles from Watts in Los Angeles. I literally watched
ADM. MULLEN I’ve actually mentored young officers
and enlisted soldiers throughout my whole career. I
knew Syd Abernethy and his brother, Tom, from the
time that they played sports at the Naval Academy. I was
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