Monday, September 21, 2015

What does it mean to be a leader?

Benjamin BJ Armstrong, LCDR, USN
SLA Conference, Boston Massachusetts
June 16, 2015

BJ Armstrong gave good talk on leadership skills at the SLA Conference in Boston back in June.  The presentation was sponsored by the Military Libraries Division and the Leadership Division.

Admiral Rickover – the father of the nuclear Navy, asked why Navy journals continued to publish articles on leadership.  The answer came that articles were still needed.

Alfred Thayer Mahan – Godfather of Naval theory. 

21st Century Mahan – by Benjamin Armstrong

Mahan gave a talk to the Victorian Club in Boston in 1905 on the topic of British admiral Lord Nelson and his success as a leader.

The key to Nelson’s success was his trust in his subordinate officers and men.

There is an interplay of risk and trust.  Nelson acted with conviction and confidence in his decisions because he had faith in his subordinates.

Nelson trusted that his men had the same zeal and convictions as he himself had.

He would also get his men the recognition that they deserved – and they knew that.

Nelson was so friendly and nice that his men wanted to do as he ordered.

But there was accountability for error and bad judgment.  Nelson could be impatient with his men as well.

Nelson was able to lead because he was willing to accept risk and he trusted his men.

Vice Admiral William Sowden Sims, Commander of the US Naval forces, WWI, President of the Navy War College.

21st Century Sims – by Benjamin Armstrong
Sims looked at what it takes to be a good junior leader.

Outlook similar to modern day Mission Command theory.

Tell the subordinate what to do – but let him/her decide how to accomplish the task.

Sims: orders are not to blindly obeyed unless the senior officer is present and knows the situation.  Otherwise, use your own judgment.

A junior leader demonstrates loyalty and demonstrates initiative.  At times these can be in conflict.

Senior leadership – trust others and rely on their skill and loyalty and also trust yourself.

Junior leadership – loyalty to supervisors – but trust yourself (show initiative).

Know how, when and whom to trust – this comes through thoughtful reflection.

Synthesizing Mahan and Sims:
Comes down to three elements:

  • Trust
  • Loyalty
  • Initiative
Being a leader is knowing when to trust other and being loyal to them.

Sims was put in charge of Naval gunnery.  He wrote some guidelines – but left it to each commander to determine how to meet those standards.  There was a competition.  You could do it any way you want, but if you win the competition – you have to write a report on how you did it. 

Sims recognized that he didn’t know everything about the best way to accomplish this – so this was his solution to crowd-sourcing (before that was a term.)

A leader has automatic loyalty to his/her subordinates.
But be circumspect about your loyalty to those above you.  Make them earn it.
Sims was himself insubordinate at times.  Once it paid off – another time it did not.

How do you rebuild trust?

Many people fear telling the boss why/how he isn’t trusting others.  It takes courage to speak up to the boss.

Back to Admiral Rickover – Leadership can be taught.  It is both practical and theoretical.  It will never be simply a matter of checking off boxes to say one is a leader.  There is the theoretical part that goes beyond the lists.

Armstrong made reference to the book/movie The Wonder Boys – a teacher was asked, 

Can you teach writing?

The teacher replied, No – you can only encourage and develop a writer.


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