Anchors Aweigh — Naval Leadership: Veteran’s Day Edition from “The Naval Officer’s Guide” 1943

As a young Navy Lieutenant Junior Grade I often consulted the Wardroom Library to find reading material, especially during the rare slack periods when the ship was undergoing upgrades and repair work in a shipyard.  One day I picked up two volumes that informed me for the remainder of my career.  One was entitled The Naval Officer’s Guide.  It was originally written by Commander (later Rear Admiral) Arthur Ageton.  Another was Naval Leadership by Rear Admiral J. L. Holloway Jr..  The first was a revised edition that expanded on some of the points made below.  The latter was from 1949 when Admiral Holloway was Superintendent of the Naval Academy.  It is this Admiral Holloway, by the way, who implemented the Holloway Plan that expanded the source of Navy officers to include undergraduate universities via Naval Reserve Officer Training Corps (NROTC) and Officer Candidate School (OCS).  If it had not been for Admiral Holloway my own pathway to a commission from the enlisted ranks almost 30 years later would have been much harder.

“There is scarcely anything more disheartening, more destructive of discipline or loyalty than the (leader)* whose philosophy of life is based on the principle of ‘Don’t do as I do; do as I say.” — Rear Admiral Randall Jacobs

For all of my extensive and varied education, these two volumes–despite the significant differences in time, human generations, society, and Naval organization–had and have provided me with more practical advice regarding leadership than any other sources.  I believe that the reason why this is the case is that the advice contained in the volumes was forged under the most demanding and dangerous conditions, certainly more than I could imagine during the relatively high tech Naval era of the latter Cold War against the Soviet Union and the one-sided conflict that was the First Gulf War.  We certainly did not have to worry about an enemy of equal or greater strength in battle at sea, we did not need to worry about Kamikaze or submarine attack, nor any of the other dangers in war that could lead to an instant entry into oblivion that was experienced by that earlier generation.

What we shared in common, however, spoke to me across time; one sea service officer to another.  We had more in common than one would imagine.  After all, the sea itself had not become any less dangerous over that time, the inherent dangers of operating a ship had certainly not lessened despite modern modes of navigation and ship control and–most importantly–the demands on people under stress operating under hazardous and arduous conditions had not changed.  In fact, with greater reliance on technical expertise and new technology, the stresses and pressures on the average sailor had probably increased in ways unimagined by either of those two leaders and, thus, magnified the importance of leadership.  Our war games were not “make believe” operations performed under controlled conditions–we operated as if at war in all phases of operations–and so the inherent dangers were real.  When conflict did call as in Desert Storm/Desert Shield, the Navy was ready because it had already performed under the same conditions.  In the words of the Chief of Naval Operations who had addressed a change of command which I had attended in 1981: “the United States Navy has been at war continuously since December 7th 1941.  We will never again allow ourselves to be surprised.”  On more than one occasion during Cold War operations we confronted our adversary in dangerous games of cat-and-mouse, and in one significant operation–had cooler heads, that is effective leadership, not prevailed–we could have been at the front line of the start of World War III.

I came across Ageton’s book again recently and revisited it.  The language in the volume is from its time, and so one must read the text in a manner to take into account the differences between the mores and language found in it compared to that of a more modern era.  If you wish substitute “people” for “men” when you read the excerpts.  Back then the Navy–as American society as a whole–was a male dominated organization of Anglo-Saxon descent.  The main leadership of the Navy came almost exclusively from the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis and so its structure–mirroring its 18th century British roots–was structured around a neo-aristocratic commissioned officer class who ruled over its enlisted men, though the experience of war, chronicled in the new science of naval leadership–soon revealed the weaknesses in this system and helped engineer its de facto and then de jure fall.  At its worst the Navy at the time was hidebound, hierarchical, and too overly concerned with tradition.  Its punishments, when judiciously meted out, would be considered relatively barbaric by today’s U.S. Navy standards.  It had many positive characteristics as well.  Developing strong, independently minded, ethical, disciplined, and imaginative leaders was one of them.  That is the concern of the contributors in the book regarding leadership–the ability to overcome and discard one’s ego to bring together the collective effort of others in a common purpose by instilling confidence, justice, and mutual respect, while acknowledging individual contributions in that effort and effectively checking the efforts of others to undermine that common purpose.  Thus, the authors were the first of a vanguard in the liberal tradition of overcoming previous hierarchies and social prejudices to forge a new means of approaching the world through the application of knowledge gained through hard experience.

The advice below applies to any organization, from the smallest to the largest, but most especially to business and government in our own time, despite the distance of time.

“Leadership is that character…which instills loyalty in subordinates and at the same time displays loyalty to superiors.  Loyalty is the basis of the morale so necessary to the successful prosecution of…objectives….If there is one thing to be learned from naval history, it is that men rather than ships are the major factor in determining victory….leadership…is the responsibility of the American naval officer.  Naval officers have the benefit of naval regulations, and the customs of the service….Naval officers will never be leaders as long as their men give only the measure of obedience required by naval regulations.  They will be leaders only when their men look to them with confidence and are eager to win their praise….How is this to be done?  Primarily by setting the example, by practicing what is preached.  American(s)…are not accustomed to discipline.  As civilians, they resent orders of any kind.  They have a strong sense of equality which has both advantages and disadvantages.   Its advantages enable…(them)…to show initiative, quickness of understanding, and cooperation.  Its disadvantages require effective leadership in the maintenance of order and discipline.  When…identified their own interests with those of their officers, there is released a reservoir of initiative, energy, and devotion, which produces surprising results.  A well-coached football team demonstrates what eleven men can do under such circumstances.  Aboard ship the same teamwork must be developed….The officer who knows how to stimulate and utilize the potentialities…will bring out their best and will win their loyalty and respect….Officers can guide, influence, and mold men.  But their greatest success will depend on the example they set….There is scarcely anything more disheartening, more destructive of discipline or loyalty than the (leader)* whose philosophy of life is based on the principle of ‘Don’t do as I do; do as I say.” — Rear Admiral Randall Jacobs, USN, in “Chapter XXIII: Leadership and the American Bluejacket,” The Naval Officer’s Guide by Commander Arthur Ageton, USN, 1943, pp. 496-498.

“True discipline is intelligent obedience of each for the consequent effectiveness of all.  It is willing obedience to attain the greatest good by the greatest number.  It means laying aside, for the time being, of ordinary, everyday, go-as-you-please and do-what-you-like.  It means one for all and all for one–teamwork….To sum up: Machines are nothing without men.  Men are nothing without morale.”  — Admiral Ernest J. King

“We must also realize that men are not effective, individually or collectively, unless they are imbued with high morale.  Morale may be defined as a state of mind wherein there is confidence, courage, and zeal among men united together in a common effort.   In brief, it may be considered mental teamwork….The means of building, and maintaining, high morale and the consequent effective teamwork can be summed up in one word–discipline–a word very much misunderstood and very much abused.  True discipline is intelligent obedience of each for the consequent effectiveness of all.  It is willing obedience to attain the greatest good by the greatest number.  It means laying aside, for the time being, of ordinary, everyday, go-as-you-please and do-what-you-like.  It means one for all and all for one–teamwork….To sum up: Machines are nothing without men.  Men are nothing without morale….I take leave to commend to your individual consideration three pieces of what may be called ‘philosophy’ which I have found helpful.  The first is ‘Do the best you can with what you’ve got’–that is, don’t expect perfection in men or in tools.  The second is a modern version of ‘Don’t worry about water that is already gone over the dam’ but, rather, pattern your thoughts and deeds on ‘Where do we go from here?’  The third is, so to speak, interlocked with the other two; it is this: ”Difficulties’ is the name given to things it is our business to overcome.'” — Admiral Ernest J. King, USN, in “Chapter XXIV: The Responsibilities of Leadership,” The Naval Officer’s Guide by Commander Arthur Ageton, USN, 1943, pp. 499-502.

“I take leave to commend to your individual consideration three pieces of what may be called ‘philosophy’ which I have found helpful.  The first is ‘Do the best you can with what you’ve got’–that is, don’t expect perfection in men or in tools.  The second is a modern version of ‘Don’t worry about water that is already gone over the dam’ but, rather, pattern your thoughts and deeds on ‘Where do we go from here?’  The third is, so to speak, interlocked with the other two; it is this: ”Difficulties’ is the name given to things it is our business to overcome.’” — Admiral Ernest J. King

*Substitution mine.  In the text he uses the word “officer.”  I use “leader” to modernize and emphasize his points.

Note:  I have changed the title of the post to reflect the fact that I used, in actuality, the 1943 edition of the Guide.

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