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Sailing True North: A book review by Bob Morris

Sailing True North:Ten Admirals and the Voyage of Character
Admiral James Stavridis USN (Retired)
Penguin Press (October 2019)

Why “a constant process of self-examination is at the heart of improving our character”

As I began to read James Stavridis’ latest book, I was again reminded of another whose author also focuses on military leaders. In Edgar Puryear’s Nineteen Stars: A Study in Military Character and Leadership (1973/2003), they are three five-star generals (George Marshall, Dwight Eisenhower, and Douglas MacArthur) and another with four-stars, George Patton. All are directly associated with World War Two.

Stavridis’ focus is on ten naval leaders throughout a period that extends from Themistocles (524-459 BC) to Rear Admiral Grace Hopper (1906-1992). The others are Zheng He, Sir Francis Drake, Vice Admiral Lord Viscount Horatio Nelson, Rear Admiral Alfred Thayer Mahan, Admiral Lord John Arbuthnot Fisher, Fleet Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, Admiral Himan Rickover, and Admiral Elmo R. “Bud” Zumwalt Jr. I knew little (if anything) about most of them when I began to read this book. All seem worthy of inclusion as do other naval leaders such as John Paul Jones and Sir Ernest Henry Shackleton, a non-admiral.

Stavridis shares these thoughts in his Preface “The voyage of character is the most important journey each of us ever makes…above all, we learn from these admirals that the quality of finding sufficient time to think and reflect is a crucial part of building character. In our frenzied world today, we should learn from their collective example…Leadership is broadly understood to be the ability to influence others, generally in order to accomplish a specific purpose…Character, on the other hand, is about internal effect and the ability to influence oneself.”

He goes on to suggest, “Character is at the heart of the ability to lead the inner self toward what is just and right. It proceeds from overcoming the strong amoral impulses — what Freud described as the id — and sailing toward the metaphorical light of moral choice. Character, unlike leadership, has both moral and ethical weight and can be more correctly described as either good or bad.”

These are among Stavridis’ other observations that caught my eye:

“Themistocles’s life invites a question that will haunt this book and the lives of most of these admirals: is vision the consequence of character? I would argue that vision is in fact one of the most distinctive elements of human character, and that it is so often what separates the ordinary life from the extraordinary.” (Page 17)

“Beyond his devotion to the nation, Nelson was a master of leadership and character in assembling the right collection of subordinates and motivating them to pull together asan effective squad — from a handful of sailores manning a gun when he was a young midshipman to the legendary ‘band of brothers’ he created among his ship captains when hed was a fleet commander. This type of team-building approach — fanatically adopted by twenty-first century organizations such as US Navy SEALs and the corporate giant Google — is at the heart of both Nelson’s character and leadership skills.” (88-89)

Did Admiral Hyman Rickover use anger and impatience “clinically as an appropriate tool of leadership? Or were they rather a character flaw that he could not control?…My view: I suspect that this diminutive, complicated, driven utterly brilliant leader used anger consciously to achieve results; but the fearsome temper also met some dark need in his own heart. He was at once the Master of Anger and a leader of brilliance as well.” (191)

James Stavridis uses — never abuses — the voyage metaphor while achieving two separate but interdependent objectives: to examine the journey of exemplars from whose personal growth and professional development many valuable lessons can be learned, and, to help his reader understand and apply those lessons during their own journey. He concludes with this observation by Oliver Wendell Holmes who correctly said that “to reach a port we must sail, sometimes with the wind, and sometimes against it. But we must not drift or lie at anchor.”

This is precisely what Tennyson’s Ulysses had in mind when reaffirming his commitment “to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.” Here’s how James Stavridis describes it: great leaders keep going, and — most important — they keep learning.

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