31 Aug 22

Here we have two recent American books on leadership, both offered by the US Naval Institute. One is aimed mainly at more junior officers and presented as a primer.  The other targets more senior people. However, in large part they share a methodology of illustrating many aspects of leadership by a series of short case studies.

Saltwater Leadership in its second edition is authored by four senior USN officers.  The first three chapters set the scene looking at the history of leadership and, taken from the extensive library of books on the subject, illustrating the many lists of qualities that various authors believe go to make up a good leader. Unsurprisingly, the lists have many elements in common even if worded differently. The meat of the book is in the next 100 pages where, under chapter headings such as Taking Care of People, Forceful Backup, Culture, Professional Competence etc, a variety of anecdotes are presented from a wide range of contributors from the military and merchant sea services. Although the examples relate directly to American experience, most of the lessons can be translated into parallel RN situations.  The book concludes with advice from those who have led and suggestions on becoming the leader you want to be.

The authors make clear from the outset that this is a primer, and they acknowledge the pressures on junior officers at sea who have plenty to fill their time. The book is thus designed as one which contains “simple leadership lessons in bite-sized chunks that can be consumed and digested between watches and sea evolutions”. In that respect, it achieves its purpose.  Although it is an interesting read, I would not particularly recommend this book over the 2012 work by Andrew St George entitled Royal Navy Way of Leadership, which is more directly related to our Service’s needs.

A Navy Admiral’s Bronze Rules is a more substantial volume subtitled “Managing Risk and Leadership” and, as such, targets officers in or on their way to more senior roles where difficult balances frequently must be struck. After a brief introduction, it illustrates a wide variety of leadership and risk management situations in 35 anecdotes from the author’s personal experience under four main headings: Personal Traits, Perennial Problems, Techniques, and Special Approaches. Given the author’s exceptionally wide experience as a nuclear submariner at sea and in senior roles ashore and subsequently in the defence industries and in government, these articles reveal a lot about the way operations and business are conducted in the USA.  That does not reduce their relevance to the RN audience since more generalised deductions can be made. Even when not seeking to learn about leadership, this book is an absorbing and quite revealing read.

From the 35 case studies, the author draws 35 conclusions which he pulls together in a final, five-page list of 35 bronze Rules. Interestingly, this chapter almost stands alone as a table of characteristics against which one could judge one’s own views of the subject. In your reviewer’s humble opinion, the subject of leadership is all too often overcomplicated, and both these books stray in that direction. Nevertheless, they contain some genuine nuggets that are summed up in the final paragraph of Bronze Rules:

“All leadership rests on the two pillars of ethics and integrity.  These concepts are sacrosanct.  There will come a time when you will find yourself challenged beyond what seems to be human capability.  The true leader will somehow find the strength to launch the saving counteroffensive.  At that moment you will be buoyed by your ethics and your integrity.”

A pointer, perhaps, for all in public life on both sides of the Atlantic?