Great leadership rarely appears overnight

Following the devastating Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December, 1941, the battered U.S. Pacific Fleet was put under the command of Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, a Naval Academy graduate and career officer in his mid-50s. It would prove to be the right move. Nimitz was a smart, confident, and disciplined leader, and he played a historically important role in winning back the Pacific during World War II.

The stories of Nimitz and other top admirals who led America’s Pacific fleet during the war are brilliantly told in a new book, Walter R. Borneman’s The Admirals (2012). William Halsey, William Leahy, and Ernest King join Nimitz as the five-star admirals featured in the book.

Early career setback

I find myself most drawn to Nimitz, as he stands as the central figure in the Pacific command. Interestingly, his naval career came very close to ending barely after it began. As a young ensign, he allowed his first command, the destroyer U.S.S. Decatur, to run aground, a cardinal sin for any ship’s captain. A court martial found him guilty of neglect of duty, and he was issued a reprimand.

Maximizing opportunities

As penance, Nimitz was relegated to submarine duty, one of the less desirable assignments in the early 1900s for an ambitious young officer. Borneman notes, however, that rather than mope about, Nimitz learned everything he could from those postings and made valuable recommendations to improve the effectiveness of the submarine service. He would continue to shake off the taint of that early reprimand and serve in numerous shipboard and land-based assignments with distinction.

The oft-unseen seeds of great leadership

In many historical accounts of the Pacific naval war, these men are presented to us as fully-formed leaders. The Admirals, however, begins with their early lives and careers, and it is chock full of accounts that show us how many of their critical successes during the war can be traced back to their pre-war education, training, and experiences. When they had to step up, they were ready.

Lessons for our day

In today’s society, we worship and celebrate youth, and this extends to those we anoint as leaders. All too often, in every sector of society, we elevate people to senior leadership positions before they are ready, and not infrequently we pay a price for their inexperience.

As corrective guidance, The Admirals is not only an excellent work of history, but also a set of lessons on the value of tested, experienced leadership.


Related posts

The Let-Me-Impress-You Club (2011)

Wisdom, experience, and leadership (2011)


Nimitz portrait: Wikipedia

Hat tip to Brian McCrane, Capt. (ret.), U.S. Navy, for recommending The Admirals.

2 responses

  1. Thanks for bringing this book to my attention. I have been complaining about the lack of experience and education on so many levels in both the workplace and the government. It is really obvious in Alaska where most leadership is politically appointed to protect politicians and go along with their agendas. Those with experience who speak up about the incompetence and corruption are bullied and retaliated against. I am also very interested in WWII.

  2. David, your article is both illuminating and inspiring. I find stories which entail an individual’s failure and efforts to redeem themselves in their own eyes and then in the eyes of others to be very helpful to me. I experienced bullying and mobbing in my family of origin and then later in the workplace, resulting in great failure in all areas of my life, despite being gifted with many talents and a very good mind. I am aware daily of my disappointments, where I failed to achieve even basic life milestones because of the results of bullying and mobbing. How does one fulfill one’s potential after emotional devastation? I guess part of the answer is what Nimitz did…lived with his penance and capitalized on the humbling circumstances of the consequences.

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