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Leadership lessons from America's Fleet Admirals

  • admirals-book-cover.jpg

    Little, Brown and Company

  • Aboard the USS Nimitz

    FILE -- Feb. 17, 2010: A U.S. Navy midshipman walks past some aircrafts onboard aircraft carrier USS Nimitz in Hong Kong waters Wednesday, Carrying some 5,000 sailors, the aircraft carrier USS Nimitz and four other ships dock for a port call in Hong Kong. (AP Photo/Vincent Yu)

Only four men in American history have been accorded the five-star rank of Fleet Admiral. Interacting with one another over four decades, Chester W. Nimitz, William F. Halsey, Jr., William D. Leahy, and Ernest J. King, not only rose to the top and won World War II, but also gave the United States Navy a global reach that has lasted for almost seven decades. 

They were an unlikely quartet. All were graduates of Annapolis, but each came to display a wildly different personality and leadership style. Nimitz was the epitome of the stern yet loving grandfather, but heaven help the man who let him down. Halsey was the hale-hearty fellow who through charisma and rough charm came to personify the American war effort in the Pacific. Leahy was the steady hand—almost invisible to the public but essential to Franklin Roosevelt’s decision-making. King was the demanding, hard-edged perfectionist who gave no quarter to superiors and subordinates alike and was seemingly quite proud of his terrifying reputation. 

These four Fleet Admirals played critical—and occasionally controversial—roles in the defining events and new weapons and tactics that led to victory in World War II, most importantly, submarines, aircraft carriers, and naval air power. In the process, they led America’s greatest generation to victory. 

Each admiral in quite different ways possessed a command presence that engendered commitment and resolve toward a common purpose. King demonstrated it by bluster and verve; Nimitz by putting his hand on another’s shoulder and saying, let’s get this thing done; Halsey—still the fullback he had been at Annapolis—by rushing though the line in such a way that everyone on the team wanted to go through with him; Leahy by never letting his own personal feelings, or those of others, interfere with his loyalty to his president and the best-interests of his country. 

Of the four fleet admirals, Leahy is the most overlooked. Yet, given his roles as confidante, advisor, and enforcer for both Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman, Leahy was arguably the most influential—a fact little recognized at the time or in accounts since. 

A review of Leahy’s memoirs attempted to capture the essence of Leahy’s contributions, but ended with some uncertainly. “Just what it was,” the reviewer confessed, “a service of loyalty, of temperament, of skill in persuasion or negotiation, or advice on men or policies—does not clearly appear from this book.” It was, of course, a combination of those points and it is to Leahy’s credit that his influential role remained publicly undefined and largely unacknowledged. 

“Leadership consists of picking good men and helping them do their best for you."

- Chester W. Nimitz

King, as the commander in chief of the U.S. Fleet, thought that Nimitz’s tenure in the navy’s personnel bureau had made him too lenient—too much of a “fixer.” But Nimitz, who served under King as commander in chief, Pacific Fleet, understood his own mode of operation perfectly. “Leadership,” Nimitz said, “consists of picking good men and helping them do their best for you. The attributes of loyalty, discipline and devotion to duty on the part of subordinates must be matched by patience, tolerance and understanding on the part of superiors.” 

King simply had no tolerance for subordinates who failed to carry out his orders to his satisfaction. Considering that King’s satisfaction was a very high bar, many failed to clear it. “On the job,” wrote historian Robert Love in his history of the chiefs of naval operations, “[King] seemed always to be angry or annoyed.” But some of that anger or annoyance may well have been a mask that was best breached when one stood up to him or took the initiative in doing what King likely would have done had he had been in the subordinate’s shoes. 

Halsey, who provided gritty leadership during the Guadalcanal campaign and then led the fleet against Japan, was both the mercurial showboat and the brooding pontificator. That Halsey enjoyed a deep camaraderie with his men was evidenced by numerous stories that circulated across his commands and made it seem as if “the old man” was half a step behind them all the way. Sometimes, he was. Once when two enlisted men were walking along a passageway shooting the breeze, one of them acknowledged about Halsey, “I’d go to hell for that old son of a bitch.” The sailor felt a poke his back and turned around to find Halsey playfully wagging a finger, “Not so old, young man.” 

With a combination of nimble counsel, exasperating ego, studied patience, and street-fighter tactics, William D. Leahy, Ernest J. King, Chester W. Nimitz, and William F. Halsey, Jr., built the modern United States Navy and won World War II on the seas. America could use more of each of their kind today. 

Walter R. Borneman is the author of "The Admirals: Nimitz, Halsey, Leahy, and King—The Five-Star Admirals Who Won the War at Sea," just published by Little, Brown.

Historian Walter R. Borneman’s books include "American Spring: Lexington, Concord, and the Road to Revolution" (Little, Brown, May 6, 2014).  "The Admirals: Nimitz, Halsey, Leahy, and King"; and "Iron Horses: America’s Race to Bring the Railroads West," to be published November 18th in paperback by Back Bay Books.