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Adm. Eric Olson, USN (Ret)

MA in National Security Affairs '85
8th Commander, U.S. Special Operations Command

Admiral Eric Olson retired from the United States Navy in 2011 as a four-star Admiral after more than 38 years of military service. A Navy SEAL officer, he served in special operations units throughout his career. He was engaged in several contingency operations and commanded at every level.  

Olson’s military career culminated as the head of the United States Special Operations Command (USSOCOM), where he was responsible for the mission readiness and deployment of all Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps special operations forces. In this capacity, he led over 60,000 people and managed an annual budget of more than ten billion dollars. His duties involved much interagency and international collaboration.  

Olson has been recognized as a Distinguished Graduate of both the United States Naval Academy and the Naval Postgraduate School. He is a designated specialist in the Middle East, Africa and South Asia. During his military service, he received numerous military decorations including the Defense Distinguished Service Medal, the Navy Distinguished Service Medal, the Silver Star for gallantry in combat, and the Bronze Star for valor. His foreign awards include appointment as an Officer in the French Legion of Honor.  

Olson is now an independent consultant and a member of the Board of Directors of Under Armour, Inc., Iridium Communications, Inc., and Sarcos Technology and Robotics Corp., as well as five privately held companies. He is a Chairman Emeritus of the non-profit Special Operations Warrior Foundation.

Running to to the sound of guns is sort of a romantic notion, but preventing the sound of guns from ever happening is a far more important endeavor. It saves lives in a much more meaningful way. It prevents the loss of national treasure in a much more meaningful way. And without an institution like the Naval Postgraduate School, we hinder ourselves in our ability to to be thoughtful about the outbreak of war.

How did your NPS education impact your ability to think strategically and lead throughout your career?

It's important, I think, for military officers, all military people, to have a balance between training and education. You train for skill, you train for certainty, you educate for uncertainty. You train to be able to do things, but you educate so that you can think in a different way.

I think as a Navy SEAL growing up, I had sufficient training to be expert at my craft. What I didn't have was the educational context to apply my craft in the best and wisest way, and I think coming to the Naval Postgraduate School gave me the experience in an academic environment that allowed me to be more thoughtful in the application of my craft and think through things in a better way. And it did have an immediate benefit, in that when I went to my first assignment after leaving the Naval Postgraduate School, the senior person there had actually read my thesis. It helped me get introduced to a new complex environment much more quickly. That's the immediate benefit of it, but what it really helped me to do over the course of my career is just think better, think through problems in a more comprehensive way, solve problems in a way that I might not otherwise have had the context for earlier or taken time to do earlier.

Why is it important for the commands, and in your case the Special Operations and Naval Special Warfare community, to send operators to NPS and invest in NPS as an institution?

It's important for the special operations community and the Naval Special Warfare Command as the maritime element of the United States Special Operations community to send students here because they simply approach war differently. They have to. They operate in smaller units, they have to be more collaborative. They operate without the benefit of mass or owning the terrain. So they have to be more clever in the way that they solve problems. And I think the Naval Postgraduate School is uniquely an environment that allows them to sort of develop more in that way.

At the command level, the Joint United States Special Operations Command, which has all services, and the Naval Special Warfare Command, which has the Navy arm of the Special Operations forces, it's important for them to invest here because they're the ones who get the return on the investment and the return on the investment is huge. They get a far more capable officer coming out of the Naval Postgraduate School. And the Naval Innovation Center here will accelerate that and contribute in an even greater way.

Why should industry collaborate with the Naval Postgraduate School?

It's important for the Naval Postgraduate School to be a destination for innovative companies. To do business with big Department of Defense, with big Navy, takes years. It takes real capital to do that. It takes a lot of patience and a lot of knowhow and the startups, where most of the greatest ideas are coming from now, often can't afford either the money or the time that it takes to get involved with the big services. And a startup, by having a relationship with Naval Postgraduate School, can see immediate value from the relationship. It doesn't take much investment. It takes a partnership, a willingness to partner is all that's required.

And with, as I said, immediate results. They can experiment with new things. They can learn things, they can exchange ideas. And I think it's enormously valuable aspect of what the Naval Postgraduate School can provide.

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