Sailing True North: Ten Admirals and the Voyage of Character

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Admiral James Stavridis could have written a book about leadership.  He was educated at the U.S. Naval Academy, spending nearly 40 years leading sailors and troops all across the globe.  He has been Dean of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy and continues to serve as director on the boards of various corporate and charitable organizations. But his most recent book, Sailing True North: Ten Admirals and the Voyage of Character (Penguin Press, 2019), is about character, not leadership. "I like to think about leadership as a big door that swings on a very small hinge, and that hinge is character; more specifically, the human heart." The proper training of a leader begins with a personal quest to build character, the inner voyage, which Stavridis explores through compelling and nuanced profiles, mini-biographies, of ten naval leaders. We spoke on the telephone about this book, his experience working for Donald Rumsfeld and what he misses about serving at sea. 

The book tells the stories of admirals.  How did you arrive at these particular leaders? 

Well, I started by returning to what I know best, the sea, and writing out a list of 50 famous admirals who could help me tell a story about character.  To better understand the character traits of a great naval leader, I went back to The Influence of Sea Power Upon History by Alfred Thayer Mahan, a book I became familiar with while a Midshipman at the U.S. Naval Academy, and narrowed my list to the 10 admirals in the book.  I hope readers can appreciate the variety.  I included Themistocles from 2500 years ago.  I knew I wanted someone from the Pacific, so I included Chinese Admiral Zheng He.  I knew I wanted someone who was a technologist, which led me to Admirals Hopper and Rickover.  There was no scientific method to choosing these leaders, but I did want to look at a temporal span across history, and I wanted to look at divergent characters and personalities because there couldn't be two admirals more different than Chester Nimitz and Francis Drake.  I really cover a spectrum of personality, but all of these leaders faced and overcame significant challenges; I hope to convey their resilience and creativity in the book.

You write about the character traits of great leaders, but I wonder about the one character trait that is shared by all poor leaders.  Any ideas?     

A lack of empathy.  All poor leaders are unable to listen to others.  Poor leaders fail to stop and deeply engage other people.  Poor leaders are kind of like a post that is pounded into the middle of the desert; the post knows nothing other than itself. 

I believe that character happens as a result of three things.  First is childhood and upbringing; the things your parents pour into you.  Second is education; the schools you attend and the books you read.  The third is the collision with the real world, all the challenges and circumstances you're forced to meet over the course of a lifetime.  Although character evolves over one's life, as a general proposition, character is well set in place by the time you're in your late 20's or early 30's. 

Let's return to the great leaders.  Of all the character traits you discuss in the book, creativity as a leader is at the top of your personal list.  Why creativity?  

The essence of accomplishment is challenging the existing order.  The difference between leaders and followers is innovation. The creative spark sets apart people of character and makes them leaders.  All 10 of my leaders were willing to challenge the orthodoxy at one point or another, and some did it more successfully than others.  War, the profession of arms, it's both creative and destructive.  Any rudimentary study of history shows that war has been an engine of innovation since humans developed the earliest types of weapons.  Many improvements on prior models or prototypes -- I'm thinking of communications, propulsion, medical treatment, and many others -- have been dual-use technologies, serving the military but also benefitting private industry.

I can always find somebody to just go from point A to point B.  I can always find someone to stand the watch, so to speak, but I struggle to find someone who can challenge the order.  Of course, being a military person, I understand the importance of acting in unison once a decision has been made, but, up until the final decision point, there should be a war of ideas and a challenge to orthodoxy.  I agree with Admiral Rickover, who said that a subordinate who always agrees with his superior is useless to the organization. 

You were a senior military aide to Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld during the George W. Bush administration, and you said that Rumsfeld "outworked, outthought, and outfought everyone."  Expand on this if you can. 

I've never seen anyone with a higher energy level than Donald Rumsfeld.  I've never known anyone who spent as much time challenging assumptions and shredding them when he found them weak.  I've never met anybody who was more determined to fight for what he believed in.  Rumsfeld was remarkable but very challenging.  I didn't agree with him all the time, and I thought he got things wrong sometimes, but his energy and determination, his capacity to read and absorb information, was unmatched.  We watched him go home every day with two briefcases packed with papers.  He'd come back at 5:30 am the next morning with all the papers in those briefcases read and underlined, ready to discuss them with his staff. 

I think Rumsfeld is under-appreciated in his achievements, and here's why.  Rumsfeld was a two-sport athlete at Princeton.  He got through Princeton on an ROTC scholarship, then went to law school, became a Navy pilot, and, a short while later, gets elected to Congress.  From there, he becomes an Ambassador to NATO and later the Secretary of Defense.  He leaves government at about age 39 to lead fortune 500 companies.  He makes 300-400 million dollars, has immense success, then turns around and comes back into public service.  Rumsfeld was Secretary of Defense and commencement speaker at my Naval Academy graduation.  Thirty-three years later, he was Secretary of Defense again and pinned on my fourth star.

Here's one more story.  At the end of every year I worked for him, Rumsfeld made out a check to the U.S. Government.  He pulled it out of his checkbook, walked into my office, because I was his chief of staff at the time, and would hand me a check for $5,000.00 dollars.  I asked him why he did this, and he told me that he knew someone, somewhere was doing something for him beyond what they should be.  Somebody was holding a door open or driving a car or whatever else.  "I can't always stop them," he said, "but I want to pay back the government if there's any question that I've received unearned benefits."  His character is unimpeachable.  There is no doubt that Rumsfeld got some things wrong, but I've never met anyone like him. 

You write in the book that you "walked off the Nimitz a better person," following a short deployment.  I got the impression from this reflection and others that you miss being at sea.  Am I correct? 

You are.  I do miss being at sea, and I miss it because I had time for quiet contemplation.  I, of course, enjoyed being on a platform moving across the ocean, the feeling of adventure and everything.  But what I really loved was that when you weren't standing watch, your options were limited, and so you were directed to think and read and sit on the fantail and just stare out into the ocean.  I found that valuable.  I suspect that the experience has diminished today, as it's already been 15 years since I was in command at sea.  Email was coming in back then, but it wasn't everywhere.  Television was coming in.  Today, you are in constant, minute-to-minute contact with your family and friends, but 30 years ago, you were just gone to sea.  You were alone.  There were letters that would come and go, but there was no immediate communication with the outside world.  I did not enjoy being away from my family, to be clear, but if you have to be away from your family, then I'm for being in an environment where you can read, think, and write.  

Where do you like to think? 

My first choice is on a ship, at sea, looking at the horizon.  My second choice would be walking through a forest.  If both of those are unavailable, then my third choice would be in front of a fireplace, with a good light and a book in my hand, looking at the fire and thinking about what I've read, trying to focus my mind in a way that helps me to better understand whatever is on the pages.



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