Friday, August 17, 2007

Lessons from an Old War: the Battle of Leyte Gulf

Few things could be finer, than to be at the beach in Carolina, sitting by the surf and reading sea-books. Maybe it’s because I come from a Naval family [father, uncle, cousins – while I, ironically, wound-up in the Army], but I think that Evan Thomas’ new book Sea of Thunder, about the [23-26 October 1944] battle of Leyte Gulf, Philippines, is both a great read, and instructive about the art of leadership. At the core of much of the book is the amazing paradigm shift that was inherent in moving from naval warfare dominated by ever-larger battleships, to the domination by air-power, and those ships that were able to deploy them. Among the lessons I though worth noting were:

  • The inability of so many bright and accomplished leaders, on both sides, to recognize that times had changed, and that new technologies, and new ways of employing them would have to be mastered.
  • The clash between “hundreds of years of naval tradition that commanders at sea in the midst of battle must be allowed to decide for themselves what to do, without meddling from the admiralty on land,” (p. 297) and the dawning confluence of complex air and sea operations over multiple fronts, complimented by nearly instantaneous communications linkages. This is exactly the same situation as classical entrepreneurship and local market knowledge, being challenged by globalization and 21st century communications technology.
  • The struggle over the value of assets in the Japanese Navy was an intriguing one. Admiral Yamamoto believed that the big battleships were to be used, while the preponderance of his colleagues, at least the beginning of the war, were hesitant to expose such prized assets to enemy fire, for fear of damaging or losing them. As a result, early in the war, Japan had the assets, but not the results that they promised.
  • Admiral “Bull” Halsey, one of the great heroes of the U.S. Navy, created a group around him, called “the Department of Dirty Tricks,” which comes directly out of the Virtuoso Team themes, and which gave him the opportunity to be challenged in a way that more conventional leaders, both American and Japanese, were not. It is telling that Halsey’s big failure at Leyte Gulf came when the Dirty Tricks mechanism was not working, due to his and their fatigue.
  • To compensate for the draining fatigue that his commanders were falling victim to, Admiral Nimitz, the most senior of U.S. Naval leader instituted a “two-platoon” system for the South Pacific, where Admiral Raymond Spruance, a disciplined, cautious leader, traded-off fleet command, every six months, with Bull Halsey, who was aggressive and “everybody’s friend.” This not only rewarded Halsey’s earlier loyalty to Nimitz when times were tough, but interposed Halsey’s ambition with Spruance’s complexity.
  • The impulsiveness of Halsey’s leadership stands in stark contrast to other situations of leadership hesitancy that I’ve spoken in earlier reviews. Not surprisingly, while there were benefits from such inclination to action, there were also some very heavy costs, as well. Overall, however, my take is that the bias for action paid off more than did cautious hesitancy. Again!
  • Finally, most of the leaders were in their early 60's. This was not easy duty; it was exhausting in the most severe physical and emotional terms, and the living and working accommodations were fairly primitive by today’s standards. Nonetheless, a group of leaders, who would have been deemed at “retirement age” today, led complex organizations through some of the greatest strategic tests of all time, despite their age.

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