Lessons in Leadership

Lessons in Leadership

I have always had an interest in history and have been known to read a military-history book or two. Just before the demise of our friends at Borders (we covered that ground last month), I purchased a hardcover book entitled: Neptune’s Inferno; The US Navy at Guadalcanal by James D. Hornfischer.

For those of you that do not know, Guadalcanal is a dismal island in the south Pacific and part of the Solomon chain. It was the first major island battle of the Pacific war and was a bloody struggle with grave consequences for the loser. It began in August 1942 with a Marine landing and raged on for nearly a year. The US Navy played a pivotal role in the campaign by protecting the Marines ashore and securing the sea lanes around the island. It is not a tale or book for the faint of heart. I am glad that I know how it came out—it wasn’t always that clear.

In October the results of battle were not going well for the US Navy and it was decided to replace the theatre commander (Admiral Robert Ghormley) with Admiral William F. Halsey (aka “Bull”).

The author is quite knowledgeable of the US Navy during that period and its senior commanders. Halsey is no exception. About half way through the book, he wrote a paragraph to describe the incoming admiral and his qualities with stunning clarity. That paragraph follows.

Halsey was neither a genius nor even a working scholar in any academic or technical field, but he had a quality of brilliance that may have been even more important in a combat capacity. He was, it was said, “brilliant in common sense.” He knew that battles and wars were not won most principally with well-drafted paperwork or subtle diplomacy or high materials and engineering ratings aboard ship, but by something quite simple and direct: placing ordinance on target. He knew, working backward from there, the quality of the mind and spirit of the men distributing the ordinance was at least important as the mechanical state of the weapons themselves. And he knew that small and simple acts, trivial themselves but intangibly powerful, raised and perfected that quality; sometimes those things were as prosaic as showing up and listening to people.  

That is one of the best descriptions of a leader I have ever heard or read. I had to read it three times when I first came upon it because it was so striking.

What does Hornfischer say about Halsey and leadership?

  • The mission is generally pretty simple to define. I have found that if you cannot articulate your mission in a handful of words you do not understand it in the first place, or you do not have one (e.g.: ordinance on target).
  • Planning is a wonderful thing, but it means absolutely nothing if it does not aid in operational execution, or worse, gets in the way.
  • People operate enterprises and the quality of their execution is crucial to end results. Machines and processes generally do not operate themselves—I do not care what your engineers try to tell you. So, do everything in your power to enable and prepare the executors.
  • Most people look for (crave) a leader to help inspire them to go that extra mile. Further, they expect their leader to be standing with (and engaging) them when there is a tough job at hand. Sometimes engagement is as simple as walking the shop floor and stopping to talk with a machine operator or forklift driver, and showing an interest in their job and their lives. I am often surprised at how predictably people perk up and smile when you show an interest in their job or just say hello. Halsey knew what he was talking about.

There are no great management secrets noted in the above paragraph; just some common sense and an understanding of what makes people want to work for and with you.

We went on the win the battle of Guadalcanal. Halsey turned the tables by picking his time and place of battle and sending his fleet out to fight. And fight they did in some of the most historic and costly naval battles ever fought. Those sailors were remarkably brave by any standards, and so were the Admirals standing next to them at battle stations. They were our fathers, grandfathers and uncles who faced mortal danger and put ordinance on target.

Next time you see one of those guys, thank them.

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