In his recent editorial in the Washington Post, Naval Academy professor Dr. Bruce Fleming asserts that leadership is the “snake oil” for today’s military and that organizations — civilian and military alike — are infatuated with it as the antidote to all organizations’ problems. He has a point. Leadership training as the single answer rings hollow. As he also suggests, teaching leadership may be a futile exercise. But he is wrong to say that “there’s no proof [leadership] has any benefit at all — or for that matter, even exists.”

On the contrary, good leadership and the powerful culture that it engenders can make the difference between a solvent company and a profitable one. Jim Collins’ Good to Great book research found virtually all the companies that outperformed their industry peers in the marketplace for sustained periods of time had what Collins called “Level Five” leaders, executives who exhibit a rare combination of deep personal humility and intense resolve.

In a military organization, leadership can make the difference between life and death. Forty years ago, 591 prisoners of war returned home alive from North Vietnam after the longest period of wartime incarceration in our nation’s history. They remained unified in their resistance to their captors and unified in their adherence to a mission: Return with Honor. To this day, they have one of the lowest rates of PTSD of any group of combat veterans: a lifetime average of 4%. And their leaders, especially Vice Adm. James Stockdale, made the unquestionable difference.

Texas Rep. Sam Johnson, a former POW, recalls one hot summer night in 1967 when he shared a cell with Stockdale, the senior ranking officer of the group. They were trying to communicate with recent “shoot-downs,” other aviators whose planes had been recently shot down. As Mr. Johnson describes it, “They were scared, for good reason. We wanted to talk to them and make them know that there were other Americans around.” The communications system was the POWs’ lifeblood, but the risks for using it were high. When possible, the POWs assigned at least one man the task of “clearing,” or alerting other POWs of a guard’s impending approach.

“Jim would get on the floor and ‘clear’ and I’d get up on the concrete bunk and talk to [a new guy] down the back side out of the window. We happened to be on the back of the jail. We would tell him essentially how the cow eats the cabbage [how the things worked in the prison system] and, that ‘you’re going to be all right.’”

On this particular night, they were finally caught. “The guard and an officer came charging down the hall. Jim barely got up before the door opened. I’m standing there and the door pops open and here’s this little North Vietnamese guy wearing Air Force 2nd Lieutenant bars. Turns out he was a camp commander. He wasn’t a lieutenant – he was masquerading as one. Jim hauled off and decked him right there. Just knocked him down. And, I thought, ‘…We’re in deep serious now.’ And we were.”

Punishment was immediate and harsh. Mr. Johnson spent 72 days in leg stocks in a small cell with the windows boarded up. He quietly notes, “Jim got the worst punishment.”

Why did Stockdale intentionally assault the camp commander by punching him in the face? An irrational outburst of anger or violence was completely out of character for this Stanford-educated philosopher. He was noted around the camp for his towering intellect, not his emotional volatility.

Mr. Johnson pauses for a long moment before answering that question, choosing his words deliberately. “Frankly, I think he was protecting me. You know, that’s a characteristic of leadership.”

Stockdale exhibited several noteworthy characteristics of a great leader that day. He stayed focused on the POWs’ agreed-upon mission, he chose his battle carefully and — without fear of personal consequences — he sacrificed himself to protect those under him. He asked nothing of his followers that he would not first deliver himself. When pain was on the agenda, Stockdale didn’t delegate. He led.


Peter Fretwell and Taylor Baldwin Kiland are the co-authors of the new book, Lessons from the Hanoi Hilton: Six Characteristics of High-Performance Teams.


Posted by admin in Aviation, Books, History, Innovation, Navy

You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

  • BudgetGeek

    In my view, Dr. Fleming’s apparent desire to indict rather than help misses the point. And so does this post. Anecdotes of inspirational leadership abound and those stories help define a culture. But the problem with the military today is not a lack of inspirational stories, but a lack of management acumen.

    Dr. Fleming was rightfully disturbed by malfeasance; he should also be disturbed by incidents of misfeasance and nonfeasance. I think that the brass is so focused on developing leaders, they forgot that there is an organization to run. And JOs read ten times as many leadership books as management books. The promotion and detailing processes assume anyone who held operational command must be capable of managing anything. I have heard countless times from people who are in positions for which they are technically incompetent: “what this organization really needs is a LEADER.” Right. The prevailing belief is that management is some lesser-included skill every good leader automatically has. That is nonsense.

    The basic tools of organization design, understanding cost, managing projects, ensuring adequate controls, staffing adequately, designing effective processes, and allocating resources are all skills that need to be learned, developed, and honed. Presently, they are in a pitiful state.

    Evidence? The Navy’s budget is up 40% in the last 15 years (adjusted for inflation) yet we have fewer people, fewer ships, and fewer aircraft — where did the money go? Acquisition programs continue to experience increasing cost growth and schedule slips despite two decades of reform — why are they declining instead of improving? The Navy pays retention bonuses to people in core roles – why is the core so willing to leave? The entire civilian workforce is being furloughed unnecessarily because someone thinks it is “fair.” The CNO guidance for a decade has sought to increase the ROI of expenses when there is no such thing; one gets a return from assets or investments, not expenses. And after 200 years we still cannot get a decent uniform.

    Yes, the military needs leaders and stories of heroism. But for every one of those officers, it needs a several dozen darn good managers who get stuff done well. It is not glamorous, but it is necessary.

    • grandpabluewater

      It is by no means enough that a Naval Officer or Petty Officer, or Leading non rated sailor, be a capable mariner and an competent technician. Each must be that, of course, but also a great deal more. Each must be a manager of goods, and supply, and other services, and training materials and institutions, at every level of the chain of command one may be assigned. Each must be a practical, humane, tough, no nonsense leader. He must supervise, discipline, teach, and provide a good example for subordinates, peers, and seniors, and be willing to risk himself to protect those above, peers, and those below him or her in status including from themselves.

      This requires integrity, personal honor, good judgement, drive, will, humility, self confidence, communications skills, a bit of acting ability, courage, faith, toughness, endurance, a sense of justice, a sense of proportions and a sense of humor, and a measure of ruthlessness. One must eschew any expectation of personal recognition or reward, endure obscurity and injustice, and serve the Navy, the nation, and the Almighty. In other words, Serve the Almighty, defend the right, and dread naught.

      For details see Kipling, poetry, “If”. and read “Captains Courageous – same author.

      Silly english teacher….”Specialization is for insects” – Robert A. Heinlein. You must do both. Well. How? Practice, practice, practice.

      If it was easy, everybody would be get to wear gold buttons on a double breasted blue suit. So get up on that high wire and start wobbling.

      You may quote me.

      Best wishes, always,


      • vtbikerider

        Leadership from my first days at NU were summarized in three words– “Mission, men, me” and they’ve served me well in my career since then.

  • I usually defend Professor Fleming, but he missed the mark on this one. Perhaps it is over-marketed, especially in the campy institution where Dr. Fleming is employed, but leadership is a critical component of any organization’s success– observe the business world. Great leaders can and do often turn around clearly hopeless organizations, just as a bad leader can be the single element which ruins a healthy one. Leadership won’t solve all your problems, but it’s an important start. Its worth studying… but I’m sure Professor Fleming would prefer we spend more time on iambic pentameter instead.


    Leadership isn’t snake oil; it can make all the difference in unit performance. I’ve seen squadrons loaded with average talent but led by generally calm, happy, charismatic, professionals crush and squadrons with great talent but uptight, nervous, paranoid, and just generally bad leadership get crushed by the same training exercises.

    As a former skeptic of the impact of leadership on a squadron, I watched equally equipped and situated squadron performances ranging from pathetic to stellar during weeks of training and came to the conclusion that the leadership team, particularly the CO made all the difference, and that it was far more personality driven than most leadership studies and books acknowledge.

    Given the same equipment and situation, I’ve seen challenges handled calmly and by flying off the handle, I’ve watched crews who literally hated their COs and XOs, and those who wanted to be their COs and XOs. COs who built up their squadrons who then rose to the challenge after bad missions and ones who had their squadrons trembling in fear, frozen into indecision, and worried about everything.

    I’ve watched COs who said “everything is important” and those who clearly prioritized. Ones who motivated and others who dominated. Ones who had effective training programs and knew their people were to be trusted once qualified, and others who never trusted their people.

    After 3+ years of observation, I have come to the conclusion that command screen needs to include personal interviews and personality assessments made by independent professionals. Some people who lack checks in the boxes turn out to be incredibly effective, and some, the “paper tigers” look great on paper but have personality defects that make them completely unsuited to command.

    Professor Fleming is wrong. Leadership makes all the difference. Unfortunately, my observation is that the qualities of excellent leaders are so tightly related to their personalities that there’s no way to pick the good from the bad other than direct observation, and although we think we do that on FITREPS, seniors don’t often spot the subordinates with antisocial sociopathic, poisonous personality traits, because those people tend to kiss up and kick down.