Setting Sail in Search of True Character

Sailing True North

BOOK REVIEW: Sailing True North: Ten Admirals and the Voyage of Character

By Admiral James Stavridis, USN (Ret.)

Reviewed by John Nixon

John Nixon was a senior leadership analyst with the CIA from 1998 to 2011. He did several tours in Iraq and was recognized by a number of federal agencies for his contribution to the war effort. During his time with the CIA, Nixon regularly wrote for, and briefed, the most senior levels of the U.S. government.  He also taught leadership analysis to the new generation of analysts coming into the CIA. Since leaving the Agency in 2011, Nixon has worked as an international risk consultant in Abu Dhabi, UAE.

America faces a leadership deficit in the age of Trump.  Our tribal politics and overly politicized civic life, not to mention the series of failed presidencies that have dotted the political landscape since the end of the cold war, has withered trust in our institutions and leaders. That is why James Stavridis’ new book, Sailing True North: Ten Admirals and the Voyage of Character, comes along at such a propitious moment and should be required reading for all young people looking forward to a career in public life. Stavridis clearly seems irked by not only President Trump’s less than stellar leadership habits, but also by how this phenomenon has been replicated worldwide. If you don’t believe what I say just said take a look around:  Thirty years ago, the giants of the world stage were names like Bush, Thatcher, Mitterrand, Gorbachev, Kohl, etc.  Now, who do we have?  Trump, Johnson, Macron, Putin, Merkel.  See the point?

Stavridis is perfectly placed to discuss the virtues and questions of leadership.  A lifelong mariner himself, Stavridis served as Supreme Allied Commander of NATO and as the head of US SOUTHCOM and knows a thing or two about leadership and politicians. He also represents a dying breed of soldier/scholar whose disappearance from our public life is a national security threat in itself.

Stavridis has carved his story into ten short brief biographical sketches about key maritime figures in history, from ancient Greece to the present day. He unearths no new insights into the biographies of such key historical figures as Lord Nelson, Admiral Nimitz, or Sir Francis Drake or any others who are profiled in the book. But that is not really the point of the book.  Instead, he points to the voyage of discovery within each figure that transformed these men and women into leaders in their own right. Indeed, his book highlights the need for enlightened leadership for those who aspire to leadership positions if the United States is to retain its quantitative and qualitative leadership advantage over our adversaries.

His ten leaders are not perfect and often have huge shortcomings that Stavridis is quick to point out.  What makes them unique in most cases is their ability to identify those shortcomings and make course corrections that extract strength from weakness. One minor quibble:  the chapter on Lord Nelson seems a bit overdone and perhaps a bit too influenced by the 2003 Peter Weir film Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World. Stavridis cites Nelson’s notorious affair with Lady Hamilton, a married woman, as a personal failing. Yes, through the prism of America 2019 I would agree. However, according the unwritten rules of British society during Nelson’s life this sort of conduct was perfectly reasonable and deviation from it would have been roundly condemned.

Stavridis describes the loss of intellectual acuity plaguing our world today.  He sees the Twitter revolution as a curse whose rein of ruin is only beginning to be understood and he shows us how intellectual curiosity and a quest for greater knowledge spurred most of his book’s biographical subjects onto greater achievement.  He is right to think this.  We live in an ahistorical era in which many Americans know almost nothing about history, and fewer still look to read books.  University libraries in the United States have shown the number of books circulating among the student population countrywide have dropped exponentially.  Intellectual laziness has become a trademark of our contemporary predicament. This is alarming and I applaud Stavridis for telling those who aspire to lead that they need to read and continually develop their intellectual capabilities lest they atrophy under an attitude of, “I know all that i need to know.”

In the last chapter of his book, Stavridis contemplates ten character traits needed in leaders today.  As a reader, I am usually unimpressed with the statesman-like look ahead that is often overtaken by events by the time of publication. Stavridis does not do this.  Instead he looks back at his own career and offers some insightful and, at times, humble examples culled from his long career.  Stavridis list of character traits are creativity, resilience, humility, balance, honesty, empathy, justice, decisiveness, determination, and perspective.  From my own perspective as a 13-year veteran CIA analyst who often interacted with senior policymakers, I could not agree more.  I highly recommend this book to anyone who is contemplating a career in public life or who intends to run for public office.

Sailing True North earns an impressive 3.5 out of four trench coats.



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