By Carolyn Gray Anderson
Christian Dunbar (EMBA ’16) has been active on Navy SEAL teams for 22 years. He is a U.S. Navy Captain and Deputy Commander in the Naval Special Warfare Center, responsible for all West Coast SEAL teams. He’s embarked on nearly a dozen deployments, many in combat, most under his leadership and lasting six months. One of those deployments interrupted his MBA studies, requiring him to take a year’s leave of absence to run Special Operations in Afghanistan.
In 2015 — the year he would have graduated were he not called into service overseas — Dunbar is one of four recipients of a John Wooden Global Leadership Fellowship. He’s a third-generation Eagle Scout whose Midwestern parents set strong examples of citizenship and personal responsibility. With two grandfathers who served in World War II, grandmothers who inspired his wise choice of spouse, and four children (ages 2 to 12) at home in San Diego, he regards his family as his most influential collaborators. “It takes their resilience, the shared love in the family,” he says, “to be able to succeed.”
At Dunbar’s level of Special Operations, leaders toggle back and forth between tactical assignments or deployments and corporate executive roles running a piece of the organization in, say, HR or finance. “You traverse from being in charge of 16 people in the middle of the night on the ocean, trying to get them to do dangerous things, to growing up to be in charge of 70 people, to then being in charge of 350 people. Your leadership style changes. When it’s a smaller unit, it’s definitely more visceral: it’s about ‘you and me’ and survival. You find a good way to create a bond with your people. Whereas when you continue to grow up it’s a little bit more about ‘Do I know how to be a technical expert?’ ‘Can I run larger management pieces and run divisions instead of small teams?’” Special Operations, he says, teaches you always to ask whether you’re doing the right thing for the people on the ground (or in the water, as the case may be), as you would in combat. “As you get withdrawn from personal risk, you still have that bond with other guys on the ground.”
Dunbar grew up in the Midwest and went to college at Notre Dame, where UCLA basketball wasn’t exactly on his youthful radar. But he wrote in the essay required for his Wooden fellowship application that Coach Wooden actually had a role in shaping his leadership development and his ability to motivate people effectively after years of managing them. He says in 2005 he had just changed jobs, going from a corporate and policy role in Special Operations Command to jump back into a SEAL team as director and deputy commander of operations. His team, a Special Operations task force, was preparing to deploy to Anbar Province, Iraq, in 2006. A senior enlisted advisor shadowing him helped him become aware that, although he was master of all the tactical and technical components of his work, he might have lost sight of the most effective and intuitive (vs. mechanical) ways to manage, lead and inspire other people.
An avid reader of classic manuals on leadership, Dunbar read Wooden on Leadership on the recommendation of his wife, a former Marine. Remembering the valuable lessons in that book, Dunbar paraphrases Coach Wooden by observing, “When you think you have all the answers, you’ve stopped asking the right questions.” And he took to heart that friendship and cooperation are both foundations of the Wooden Pyramid of Success. “I directly attribute to Coach Wooden my ability to pivot at a pretty critical time, 12 years into the SEAL teams, when I thought I was very successful but was losing touch.”
With master’s degrees in space systems operations and unconventional warfare (which he describes as the “science of counter-terrorism”), Dunbar is pursuing an Executive MBA because he’s developing a “sports performance” business in which he’s applying psychology and behavioral techniques that have worked in military contexts to mitigate negative behavior — specifically, sexual assault and domestic violence.
Through what he describes as a circuitous path, Dunbar says, “I really feel as though I’ve found that next layer of service.” His consultancy teaches better habits and decision-making to help athletes become better educated as well as better selected and assessed, and imparts better ways to cope with the stress and the power struggle they deal with on the field. He’s led this kind of training across an organization thousands wide, and he imagines clients among the NFL or other major athletics organizations and large university systems.
Thus, a for-profit business applying the methods he knows effectively intercept and change negative behavior will branch into the Ethos Project, inspired by alarming statistics that one in four college women will get sexually assaulted on campus. When family friend and UC Regents President Janet Napolitano launched the Task Force on Preventing and Responding to Sexual Violence and Sexual Assault, Dunbar, with three daughters of his own, reflected that, having helped to stop the invasion of entire countries, he ought to be able to contribute somehow to curbing this kind of violence.
He’s now training to be a victim advocate. He says UCLA offered him chances for collaboration outside Anderson. He’s networked among people on Napolitano’s UC task force, medical care providers, and UCLA Title IX Coordinator Kathleen Salvaty, a fellow Notre Dame graduate.
“The Anderson experience has been amazing for me,” says Dunbar. “I chose to come here.” He says he interviewed at other b-schools where the process felt more “cut-throat,” but the Anderson culture reinforces for him “a sense of purpose, a sense of service.” He feels strongly that the Anderson community is interested in the quality of life, within the b-school cohort and outside of it. “It’s a lot about the students, but it’s also about the staff, the faculty…. And some of them are not just plain old ‘good professors.’ I look at what they do extra; they’re studying or they’re proving or discussing happiness.
“When you get to be my age and you’ve been in the SEAL teams for twenty-something years…it’s about resourcefulness, it’s about working hard, it’s about a commitment to each other — there are other things in life besides business success.”
Dunbar, along with three other Anderson students, will be awarded his $25,000 fellowship on October 6, when Anderson also honors Xerox chairman and CEO Ursula Burns with the 2015 John Wooden Global Leadership Award.