Nov. 18, 2019 —
Sailing True North: Ten Admirals and the Voyage of Character
By James Stavridis
Penguin Press, 2019
336 pp. $28.00
Vice Admiral Peter H. Daly, USN (Ret.), is the Chief Executive Officer of the U.S. Naval Institute.
Character is being widely discussed on the national stage today, and it is the main subject of Sailing True North: Ten Admirals and the Voyage of Character. This new title spans the arc of time from Themistocles to current-day admirals. For each of his subjects, the author distills their stories and key attributes. I have known Jim Stavridis for more than 30 years and most recently worked closely with him in my role as CEO and Publisher at the U.S. Naval Institute when he was Chair of the Board.
The short histories and examples that he provides in Sailing True North do not just focus on successes; the book does a good job of giving balanced treatment to both successes and failures. The flaws are covered, and from these flaws and failures, we learn the most. It is a heavy lift to see so many historic subjects in one title and relate these to the present-day world, all while providing relatable examples within the author’s own substantial experience. Sailing True North makes the lift and does it well.
In reading the work, I was reminded of the writings of Douglas Southall Freeman, best known for his biographies of George Washington (Simon & Schuster, 1995) and Robert E. Lee (Scribners, 1991). Freeman gave a series of lectures at the Army War College and the Naval War College that I recommend to anyone who wants to understand leadership under stress and under truly consequential circumstances. After looking at the leadership traits common to these men and others he studied, Freeman summed up their leadership qualities in three tenets, which in today’s diverse world of military service would translate as follows: “Know Your Stuff,” “Do the Right Thing,” and “Look After Your People.”
Leadership and character are always important, but perhaps even more so now. There is a real thirst for national leadership—on both sides of the aisle—that citizens can feel proud of. This book proves that leadership is not limited to heroic seagoing assignments, even in the Navy. Stavridis highlights three examples in particular: Alfred Thayer Mahan, the writer whose books about seapower, history, and geopolitics continue to influence our ideas about foreign policy and national defense; Hyman Rickover, the visionary whose work on nuclear propulsion transformed the Navy forever; and Grace Hopper, the gifted mathematician and computer scientist who led the Navy into the computer age. These leaders demonstrated the kind of character—especially the dedication to national service—that Stavridis obviously admires.
Another context that makes this book timely is the dramatically changed media environment. Deliberate disinformation and the polarization of debate and discourse make it more difficult for citizens to distinguish factual information from false. The media environment is weaponized, and a casualty of this is a loss of faith in our leaders and our institutions. We crave the “essential sanity” that Freeman identified in George Washington. A malaise has set in—one that manifests itself in a trend of the best and brightest being discouraged from engaging in national service.
While its emphasis is on naval leaders, Stavridis’s book provides character and leadership insights that transcend things naval and are relevant to the joint warfighting community and joint professional military education. Indeed, it has lessons that extend well beyond the purely military realm. This gives Sailing True North a Freeman-esque quality and utility, and I recommend it to anyone who wants to understand the essential questions of character and leadership under stress. Jim Stavridis boils down the traits, the common threads. For each, the author provides examples from his own experience. At the top of his list of 10 key conclusions are creativity followed by resilience. The book makes readers think and challenges us to ask who our heroes are and what qualities they embody. Stavridis encourages us to self-examine as we make our voyage through life with all the tests of leadership and character that one will experience.
The author is supremely well read, and, as such, he provides an invaluable distillation of a vast span of history for easy assimilation. I found the style and the structure of the book easy to follow and enjoyable to read. Translating this history and these traits into specific, modern examples makes the book both an invaluable primer for new students of leadership and a stepping off point for those who want to delve deeper into specific historical subjects.
This book answers the question: What does Jim Stavridis think is most important? When the author is this well read, this well known, and himself served at the most consequential levels of command, that is a question worth answering. This makes it a recommended read—a must read. JFQ