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Dr. James Holmes: The Naval Diplomat - 19FortyFive

When Do Troublemakers Make for Great Leaders?

Image: Creative Commons.
Image: Creative Commons.

I plan to close out my book-publishing career within the next few years, and I’m playing with an idea for a final book that will be purposeful and fun. Namely, a paean to difficult leaders you want on your side despite their foibles. 

The volume will go by the title Bastards, But Our Bastards — one inspired by a recurring jest from eminent Americans such as Franklin Roosevelt. The idea will be to figure out when it is worth putting up with a political or military leader’s objectionable temperament or unusual methods in hopes that such a leader will deliver outsized service to the national weal. 

A Matter of Discernment

More to the point, I hope that canvassing history and biography will help today’s political magnates find and elevate difficult leaders fit for strife-torn times. We could use some right about now. 

That difficult leaders have a part to play is not a novel insight. According to U.S. Navy lore, after Pearl Harbor, when Admiral Ernest J.King — guaranteed a place in this volume — was named chief of naval operations, he declared: “When they get in trouble, they send for the sons of bitches.” (Hollywood’s version of King certainly did make that statement in Midway.) 

A number of valuable traits come with being an SOB. The trick is to discern when a policymaker or commander boasts traits suited to the times and circumstances, and holds them in such measure that tolerating the leader’s less savory aspects blazes the best trail forward. 

A Rubric of Unusual Traits

What are the characteristics that make it worthwhile to turn to an unconventional leader? Who possessed the right stuff in abundance, and who failed to make the grade? “Rubric” has become a loathsome buzzword in academe, but crafting a rough guide to gauge the fitness of candidates for leadership could help us identify the future Ernie Kings of the military and diplomatic world. Which bastards should we make our bastards in order to achieve important goals? Here are a few potential indices that could make up a leadership rubric, along with a historical figure or two corresponding to each. 

First, ultracompetence is plainly a becoming characteristic for any leader. You can overlook a lot on the personal side to tap the operational brilliance of a future General George S. Patton, who feuded with senior leadership and the press from time to time but who pioneered maneuver warfare decades before the U.S. Army codified it in doctrine. Or there’s Colonel John Boyd, who wasn’t much of a family man but was a seer in matters of strategy, operations, and tactics. By fashioning ideas about how combatants adapt to change and turn it to advantage, Boyd left a lasting imprint not just on fighter tactics and aircraft design, but on ground warfare. Boyd remains the U.S. Marines’ favorite Air Force officer, and for good reason. Generational talents may merit special treatment. 

Second, praiseworthy sons of bitches refuse to tolerate a false or outdated status quo. They break the reigning paradigm and replace it with something that aligns better with the times. Winston Churchill clamored for military preparedness during the 1930s, when he saw storm clouds gather with the rise of Nazism, Italian fascism, and Japanese militarism. As a junior naval officer, Admiral W. S. Sims wrote to President Theodore Roosevelt, going above the U.S. Navy leadership’s head when the establishment quashed his ideas about continuous-aim firing. Continuous aim referred to a combination of fire-control methods and hardware that kept guns trained on an enemy warship even as the ships pitched and rolled with the seas. Roosevelt made Sims the director of target practice for the entire Navy. He earned laurels as the marksman who taught the Navy to shoot. Churchill and Sims showed how SOBs refuse to be bound by orthodoxy or convention. 

Third, laudable bastards are true believers. They display fanaticism for a good cause, and they have confidence in their ability to carry that cause forward despite all obstacles. They sometimes achieve the unthinkable as a result. Admiral Hyman Rickover, whose personality quirks are legend in the service, championed the cause of nuclear power in the Cold War-era U.S. Navy. So impactful was Rickover’s advocacy that to this day American submariners cannot countenance a return of conventionally powered attack subs to the fleet. The father of the nuclear navy, moreover, is directly responsible for the submarine force’s enviable engineering safety record, having instituted SUBSAFE, a regimen of stringent, fanatically enforced safety measures, in response to the loss of attack boats Thresher and Scorpion in the 1960s. Forging the finest force of its kind is an accomplishment worthy of a glorious bastard. 

Finally, SOBs sometimes succeed by sowing productive tension with mellower and humbler colleagues. The aforementioned Admiral King constantly needled his Pacific Fleet commander, Admiral Chester Nimitz, for offensive action against Japan. If King was all offense, all the time, Nimitz lived by the principle of calculated risk, by which he meant that fleet commanders should assail Japanese forces whenever they expected to do worse to the foe than the foe could do to them. The push-and-pull dynamic between the SOB and the non-SOB set the tempo for U.S. naval operations in the Pacific, assuring these operations were venturesome but not foolhardy. A bastard can impart energy and direction to an enterprise, provided he’s openminded enough to heed counsels of restraint when the situation warrants. 

Worthwhile Risks

There are dangers in sending for the sons of bitches. An SOB could fall short on a prized virtue, or take a good and healthy quality to baneful and unhealthy extremes, turning virtue into vice. One thinks of Patton’s better-now-than-later advocacy for starting a war with the Soviet Union after defeating the Axis. If we reach way back into history, we can see how it courts catastrophe to promote an Alcibiades, a supremely gifted soldier prone to megalomania — he dreamed of conquering Sicily as a springboard to Athenian dominance of the Mediterranean world. A measure of sobriety and humility is a virtue even for a son of a bitch. 

This is why it is important to think ahead about how to sort between the bastards worthy of embracing and those best exiled from high authority. 

James Holmes is J. C. Wylie Chair of Maritime Strategy at the Naval War College and a Distinguished Fellow at the Brute Krulak Center for Innovation & Future Warfare, Marine Corps University. The views voiced here are his alone.

Written By

James Holmes holds the J. C. Wylie Chair of Maritime Strategy at the Naval War College and served on the faculty of the University of Georgia School of Public and International Affairs. A former U.S. Navy surface-warfare officer, he was the last gunnery officer in history to fire a battleship’s big guns in anger, during the first Gulf War in 1991. He earned the Naval War College Foundation Award in 1994, signifying the top graduate in his class. His books include Red Star over the Pacific, an Atlantic Monthly Best Book of 2010 and a fixture on the Navy Professional Reading List. General James Mattis deems him “troublesome.”