3 Questions with Admiral William McRaven

The four-star admiral, Navy SEAL, and author talks about the characteristics of a hero and how we can all cultivate them in our own lives.

Official photo of Admiral William McRaven
(U.S. Navy)

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Where are our heroes? In times of stress and despair, we long for real-life leaders — without capes and superpowers — to help us keep going. Admiral William McRaven is credited with organizing the special ops raid that led to the killing of Osama Bin Laden and also wrote the book Sea Stories: My Life in Special Operations. A 37-year Navy SEAL, he is now retired from the Navy, and he insists that we can create the heroes we need. In his new book, The Hero Code, he shows us the qualities it takes to be an everyday hero and how to develop them. Courage, humility, integrity, hope, duty, and even humor are learnable, he says.

McRaven admits he dreamed of being larger than life, but he laughs at pictures of him as a boy with a towel draped on his shoulders trying to be Superman exist; they will never be published, he says. McRaven believes that real super-men and -women are all around us, and they can be our living teachers.

Jeanne Wolf: How do you we start sending out the message at a very young age that there is a sort of code — a standard you should have for yourself?

Adm. William McRaven: Most of the people I know learned these traits from a parent, a guardian, a coach, a teacher, a mentor. The whole point of The Hero Code, of course, is that these qualities are teachable. Sometimes you can read them in a book. But, of course, they have a lot more power and people can internalize them more when they actually meet people who put them into action. I was fortunate enough to be exposed and inspired by a lot of people in my career. It’s not what they say. It’s what they do. It’s always about their actions. And sometimes it’s about what they don’t do.

Life has taught me about heroism. I’ve told the story about my breaking into an ammunition storage depot when I was about 10 years old. As I scampered back over the fence to avoid the police, I lost my toy pistol. A couple of days later, my father, who was one of the senior officers on the base, called me in. He said, “Bill, security police tell me that some kids broke into the ammunition storage. Do you know anything about that?” And it’s the first and last time I ever lied to my father: I said, “No, sir, I don’t.” He said, “Okay, thanks.”

Well, I went to go to bed that night. There on my nightstand is my Roy Rogers toy pistol. So my dad had always known. He never said anything about that. He didn’t have to; I mean, it hovered over me and I realized if you lie, you’re going to get caught.

JW: You say that kindness, compassion, a sense of duty, and learning forgiveness are essential to the code. War is rough. Why aren’t you more bitter and disillusioned?

WM: I have seen horrors. War can bring out the worst in us, but I have also seen the very, very best of mankind. I have seen, you know, fathers and mothers take care of their children under unimaginable circumstances.

There’s a generosity and a sense of sacrifice that heroes have without wanting a lot of attention. They give a little of themselves every day. I think of Gary Sinise, who played Lt. Dan in Forest Gump. When I met him in Afghanistan, he was delivering school supplies for Afghan children in the middle of the war. He came to the military to get an airplane to deliver the things he brought. What Gary, this one civilian, has done for veterans is amazing. That is heroics.

For me, the term hero is gender-neutral. A hero is anybody who does the right thing when they could do otherwise, frankly. Superman really does not exist. Wonder Woman doesn’t exist. But we still can gain inspiration from the qualities that they have — the humanized version, if you will. This isn’t about comic books; it’s about real life.

JW: Aren’t some people just born with more fortitude and abilities?

WM: That is always the question. Now there are some, there’s no doubt about it, that are just naturally more brave, let’s say, naturally more courageous, stronger. As kids, they were the ones that were going to kind of storm the hill. But I have seen others that are the last you would think who would charge the hill go the farthest and do the most. And I think a lot of this you can watch, you can learn. The point of the code is that this is teachable. It’s a mindset to be followed to make you, hopefully, a better person.

By the way, real heroes are not perfect people. But that doesn’t mean that some of the qualities they have aren’t aspects that we should work hard to emulate. What makes a hero is their ability to overcome struggles, including their own. We all have challenges. Everyone is going to stumble. You have to look at the totality of the human being — draw upon their best talents. If you are looking for that perfect hero out there, you’re going to be looking for a long time.

Being a hero isn’t easy. It can be filled with pain and disappointment. But you can rise above the crowd once you realize it’s up to all of us. Then you make it up to you.

This is an extended version of the interview that appears in the May/June 2021 issue of The Saturday Evening Post. Subscribe to the magazine for more art, inspiring stories, fiction, humor, and features from our archives..

Featured image: U.S. Navy

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  1. I purchased his new book read it in about 4 hours. A small book with 133 pages but inspiration to fill a dictionary. I’m retired but used to be a teacher in a police academy where we introduced books to inspire critical thinking. Admiral Mcraven’s would be in the curriculum.

  2. I was born full of fear and
    it ruined my childhood,but
    my trip to Viet Nam made it
    go away.Like my Dad did;a man’s
    gotta do what a man’s gotta do,
    and I did.


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