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Five Keys to go from “Desk Jockey” to the Leadership Hall of Fame

By Jim Thomas, Ph.D.

Jim Thomas, Ph.D.

Independence Day in the United States is just around the corner on July 4th and it’s a time when our thoughts turn to summer! For me, that means cargo shorts and water sports. For some reason, I seem drawn to the water. When I was ten years old I lived in Florida, in a city laced with canals. My family had a 10-foot johnboat with a three horsepower outboard. For my brothers and I, that boat was our ticket to freedom. Give us a gallon of gas and we were the captains of our own ship and masters of our universe.

Chester NimitzBut this day also causes me to pause and be thankful for so much in this country. So many people have led America admirably throughout its history. And, as a person who makes his living helping organizations nurture and development leadership talent, I can’t help but consider the many leadership lessons that can be drawn from a study of our military heroes—particularly those who served in the Navy.

Take for example, Chester Nimitz. Most Americans probably wouldn’t recognize the name (a pity), but for those who’ve served in the United States Navy, he’s an icon. Admiral Nimitz was the Commander-in-Chief, U.S. Pacific Fleet (CINCPAC) during World War II and was one of the principle architects of our victory over the Japanese. But while Navy men and women (and history buffs like myself) remember Admiral Nimitz as CINCPAC, most don’t fully understand or appreciate the extent of his talents as a leader.

The Admiral has much to teach those of us in the 21st century about the art of leadership.

Everyone knows that the U.S. entered the war after the bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. For Nimitz, that fateful December found him deskbound at the Navy’s Bureau of Navigation. For those of you not familiar with the Navy, rest assured that this job is not usually a stepping stone to command greatness. It was a backwater with little prestige or visibility. One month later he was commanding the Navy’s Pacific fleet and organizing what would be the winning strategies that ultimately rolled back the Japanese and led to the Allies’ victory.

How did Nimitz move from this unlikely starting place in Washington to find himself, only three weeks later, motoring through an oil-slicked and devastated Hawaiian harbor taking command of a Pacific fleet that was burned out and resting on the bottom? And more interestingly, how did he transform the Navy in the Pacific in just two short years to become the most powerful naval force the world has ever seen? The answer to this question provides some invaluable lessons for today’s leaders.

1. Get yourself prepared.

Nimitz’s naval career is a study in preparation. He had a wide variety of experiences, ranging from surface ships, to submarines, to aviation while rising through the ranks. He also spent considerable time working on the “edges” of the Navy, teaching at universities, leading ROTC programs, and recruiting. While other officers sought out and stayed in more glamorous assignments, Nimitz learned about his organization from the inside out, from top to bottom. When the call came to lead a force made up of a multitude of semi-independent pieces, he was credible in all the important areas and could bring them together in a coordinated fashion.

Nimitz combined a love of the classroom with a willingness to “go and do.”  Throughout his career he insisted on leading “by the book” but also testing the book based on his own and others’ experience and, where necessary, rewriting the book.

2. Inspire your team.

While the bombing of Pearl Harbor motivated and energized the U.S. population, the story was quite different for the Navy. Nimitz arrived to take command of the Pacific fleet on Christmas Day, 1941 and as he flew into Hawaii he saw a devastated fleet and a dejected, demoralized team. His first action was to acknowledge the past, but get the team focused on the future. His focus was on the work ahead. He didn’t spend time second-guessing past decisions or dwelling on mistakes. And in spite of the apparent failure of his officers to anticipate and react to the attack, Nimitz made a point of expressing his personal confidence in their skills and professionalism. They would remain “his team” and he would bring out the best in them to meet the challenges that lay ahead. This earned him the undying loyalty of his staff and of the sailors in the fleet.

3. Stay connected to the operational details.

Within the highly hierarchical organization that was the Navy, Nimitz did something unique. Every day for an hour in the afternoon he held an open house. Anyone could come to his office and speak to him directly about their issues and concerns. Junior officers from every vessel arriving into Pearl Harbor were encouraged to attend. This condescension to lower level officers was viewed as an inappropriate waste of time by many of Nimitz’s peers.

But Nimitz knew that in order to lead, you have to listen. He used these sessions to gain an in-depth understanding of the problems and issues confronting those at the front line, or operational side, of the organization. This gave him a unique perspective that allowed him to address these issues more quickly and effectively than most other senior leaders. It also bred loyalty and engagement among this team. He actually cared about what his junior people thought and he addressed their concerns.

4. Know your people.

Nimitz’s time at the Bureau of Navigation might have been viewed as a backwater assignment leading to retirement, but it provided Nimitz with a singular advantage that most of his peers didn’t fully appreciate. At that time, the Bureau was also the repository of the Navy’s personnel records. Nimitz used his time there to gain an in-depth understanding of the Navy’s human assets. He knew which leaders were ready for bigger and better assignments, he knew where the technical expertise resided, and he knew who the laggards were.

Nimitz used these insights to replace leaders who were incapable of making the transition from a peacetime force to one that was compelled to fight aggressively and run into harm’s way. Many of his personnel choices were controversial at the time, but his expert knowledge of talent enabled him to assemble the team necessary to rapidly expand the naval forces in the Pacific and, ultimately, win the war.

5. Don’t act like the smartest person in the room.

Another aspect of Nimitz’s leadership was how he interacted with colleagues and worked with his staff. He was not the stereotypical “fighting man.” Just the opposite, he was famous within the Navy for his outwardly mild manner and gentility. He let others talk while he listened and learned, and he was polite to a fault. But underneath that calm exterior beat the heart of a lion, only revealed through a set of steely blue eyes.

Most importantly, he didn’t have to be the smartest person in the room. He didn’t dominate discussions in staff meetings. He encouraged others, regardless of rank, to express their opinions and he orchestrated his staff to debate options before making key decisions. He masterfully facilitated so all relevant options were reviewed and analyses considered. He asked questions to probe for the weak spots in the analyses and led the group to reach a consensus. And then, he would make his decision and act.

Today’s business leaders may not find themselves involved in life-and-death struggles like those faced by Admiral Nimitz, but there are many parallels. Today’s leaders have teams that must be re-energized after experiencing setbacks and challenges. We have to mobilize scarce resources to address growth imperatives. And, we have to lead highly complex organizations that require the alignment and coordination of hundreds (or even thousands) of individual contributors in order to achieve challenging objectives.

As we celebrate the freedom we enjoy in so many places around the world, join me in taking a moment to remember Admiral Nimitz and those who served under him in World War II. But let’s also take a lesson from his experience to become better learners, better listeners, and, ultimately, better leaders.

Jim Thomas, Ph.D., is DDI Vice President, Global Consulting & Partnerships.

Posted: 30 Jun, 2016,
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