Leadership & Command

By Lieutenant Commander Benjamin Armstrong, U.S. Navy

Avoid the Administrative Mindset

Today’s military leaders are just as likely to be students of business theory and management practice as they are naval history or international affairs. Since the end of the Cold War a movement in some circles claims the networked battlefield of the new century can be best approached through these disciplines. The understanding of business practices, according to that model, will produce better warfighters. Mahan disagreed. In his view there was a place for what we call business or organizational theory today—what Mahan referred to as administration—but it should never be the driving force behind naval or military decisions, and always has to be kept in check.

In May 1903 he tackled the subject of the role of administration directly in an essay titled “The Principles of Naval Administration: Historically Considered,” which was published in the British journal The National Review . Mahan’s goal was to write for the general audience who would be reading the magazine, but he came to realize that in doing so he had simplified the terms of his thinking, making it clearer to naval professionals as well.

“The Principles of Naval Administration” begins with an examination of the essentially civil role of administration, even though in the Department of the Navy military officers hold most such positions. It is a discussion of what modern naval professionals would recognize as the challenges of being assigned to staff duty. Mahan tells readers there is a natural conflict between the military officer and the administrator, and that can be a systemic strength. However, it becomes difficult when the naval officer becomes an administrator and his loyalty and work are torn between conflicting values and necessities. He wrote that:

The military man having to do the fighting considers [combat] the chief necessity, the administrator equally naturally tends to think the smooth running of the machine the most admirable quality. Both are necessary, but the latter cannot obtain under the high pressure of war unless in peace the contingency of war has dictated its system. 2

When given the opportunity, Mahan believed, the smooth operation of the essentially bureaucratic tasks of administration would overwhelm military considerations and the necessities of warfare, especially in peacetime. For that reason, military officers on staff duty need to constantly guard against the idea that the “economical working of the office” is more important than the effect of their programs and requirements on the ability of combat forces to do their job. Mahan believed that it wouldn’t take long for officers in staff positions to be corrupted by the civil administrative system. Time served on staff duty, away from combat units, “tends to deaden the intimate appreciation of naval exigencies.”

As a result officers need to constantly ask themselves if they are helping deployed naval forces to be ready for combat, or if they are helping the administrative system to run more smoothly—and thus more acceptably to senior officers, civilians, and politicians. The Department of Defense, as structured under the Goldwater-Nichols Act of 1986, has swollen the size of today’s military bureaucracies and pulled even more officers toward the sway of “the economical working of the office.” Mahan warned against being pulled into such an attitude, and reminded officers to beware, because “the habit of the arm-chair easily prevails over that of the quarter-deck; it is more comfortable.” 3

‘Failure to Dare Is Often to Run the Greatest Risk’

Risk and the unexpected are a significant part of warfare, contributing to what Karl von Clausewitz called “the fog of war.” Despite the central role of accepting and taking advantage of risk throughout military history, some officers today are accused of being excessively risk-averse. That is sometimes based on an extreme regard for the safety of their sailors or, occasionally, on fear for their career in a Navy that increasingly appears intolerant of mistakes.

Risk aversion appears to permeate the Department of Defense with no regard to any particular service. An analysis of the post-9/11 service member in Joint Force Quarterly acknowledges, “senior military leaders are often risk-averse.” 4 Discussions of junior and mid-grade officer retention often include the tendency of senior officers to fear risk-taking as part of the problem. In a highly read article in The Atlantic —“Why Our Best Military Officers are Leaving”—Tim Kane wrote that today’s zero-defect mentality “ensures that the services retain the most risk-averse, and [that] leads to long-term mediocrity.” 5

Mahan recognized the challenges of risk, writing that “heedlessness of conditions, or recklessness of dangers, defeats efforts everywhere.” Yet to Mahan risk was something that those in command had to embrace. Despite the challenges that risk and uncertainty create, Mahan wrote they are “as much of its opportunity as its danger.” Risk and the ability to accept it to get the job done were central parts of his teaching at the Naval War College. While it’s great to eliminate the fog of war, it can also be used to cloud the enemy. Mahan wrote that in military subjects “it is necessary first and for all to disabuse the mind of the idea that a scheme can be devised, a disposition imagined, by which all risk is eliminated.” 6

Mahan admired Britain’s Vice Admiral Horatio Nelson because Nelson embraced risk as a means to achieve great reward. Nelson also rewarded his subordinates who took risks, even when they sometimes failed. He regularly spoke up for them against the recriminations of officers who remained in London. Nelson recognized the risks in his own decisions—he wasn’t foolish enough not to understand them—but he knew that accepting them was the only way to achieve success. Mahan wrote that we must recognize:

. . . the shilly-shally vacillations of the multitude of clever men, who never find in themselves the power to act upon their opinions, if action involves risk, because opinion receives not that inward light which we called conviction, confidence, trust, faith.

Those were the traits that helped Nelson overcome risk, and what made him a great leader.

There has never been a time when the “long-term mediocrity” suggested by The Atlantic ’s Kane was a positive attribute for a nation’s security, let alone for a global superpower facing the challenges the United States confronts today. The ability to take risks appropriately serves today’s leaders in more than just combat decisions. In a 2008 article in Proceedings , “Worse Than a Crime, A Mistake” Captain Jan Van Tol lamented an “unimaginative, fearful, senior leadership mentality dripping with short-sightedness and risk aversion.” Though his article was about good order and discipline, an inappropriate attitude toward risk moves easily from liberty policy to combat decision-making, and to strategic planning as well. Mahan would identify with that idea because officers with the desire to entirely eliminate risk drove him to write in McClure’s Magazine in 1899 that, “Failure to dare is often to run the greatest risk.” 7

‘The Inborn Natural Power to Trust’

Trust. It sometimes seems a frightening concept to many military leaders. In principle, it sounds great, but in practice some senior leaders claim that it is much harder or even ineffective. In recent discussion about the utility of “mission command,” or auftragstaktik as it is known in German military history and practice, Army Colonel Paul Yingling reminded us in a short essay in 2011 that military success “requires junior leaders capable of taking prudent risks, and senior officers willing to underwrite and reward risk-taking.” 8 Mahan thought and wrote about the vital importance of trust—that it was trust in subordinates that allowed senior officers to reward those who take risks.

Mahan’s best example of the results of trust came from his study of Nelson, the most celebrated officer in the Royal Navy’s long history. In Mahan’s biography of Nelson the admiral’s “faith” was held up as one of his greatest attributes. Mahan used faith in its secular sense of faith in oneself and faith in others, but reviewers criticized the book for its apparent religious references. Mahan later clarified what he had meant by faith when he spoke at Boston’s Victorian Club on the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Trafalgar. He said Nelson combined the attributes of conviction, confidence, and most of all trust.

Nelson’s trust in his subordinates was natural. He entered any decision, or any argument, with the assumption his officers and men were going to do the right thing or try their hardest. Mahan wrote:

This spontaneous recognition took form in an avowed scheme of life and action, which rested, consciously or unconsciously, upon the presumption in others of that same devotion to duty, that same zeal to perform it, and, in proportion to the individual’s capacity, the same certainty of achievement which he found himself.

When told by the First Lord of the Admiralty he could select his own subordinate officers for a command Nelson responded, “Choose them yourself. You cannot go amiss. The same spirit actuates the whole profession; you cannot choose wrong.” That was in the Royal Navy of the late 18th and early 19th century, filled with impressed sailors and “stop-lossed” officers. One would hope that in an all-volunteer force such as the 21st-century U.S. Navy one could feel the same way.

The admiral’s trust of his men was electrifying. He recognized those he believed had made every effort, and failed, with the same kind words and support shown those who were successful. Nelson himself wrote, “If I ever feel great, it is in never having, in thought, word, or deed, robbed any man of his fair fame.” His men knew that, and knew if he had any control over a situation he would ensure they received the recognition they deserved. The result? One of his officers wrote, “He is so good and pleasant that we all wish to do what he likes, without any kind of orders.” 9

Nelson wasn’t always “good and pleasant,” however. If he believed a failure resulted from negligence, inattention, or delinquency to one’s duty, Mahan wrote, “his wrath had all the fierceness of trust betrayed, for he was a man impatient and of strong passions, but otherwise doubts of another’s doing his duty did not occur to him.” Neither did Mahan paint too rosy a picture of the admiral, noting, “though kindly, Nelson was irritable, nervously sensitive to exasperating incidents, at times impatient to petulance, and often unreasonable in complaint.” 10

Trust, however, is not something applied just to subordinates. Mahan wrote “as Nelson trusted his fellows, so he trusted his voice within.” It was that dueling faith in his subordinates and conviction in his own decisions that allowed Nelson to face risk. He recognized that risk was a vital element to warfare, and accepting it was part of victory. Nelson wrote that “far from being infallible, like the Pope, I believe my opinions to be very fallible, and therefore I may be mistaken.” But as a combat leader he knew that he had to make decisions and accept the risks in order to be effective. It was because he trusted his men to do their duty, and trusted his own decisions, that he could press ahead with risky decisions.

Mahan recognized some failing in himself, knowing that on occasion he had worked through a problem reasonably and had come to a course of action, “but had not the nerve to take [it] because of the remaining doubt. Here reason, the goddess of to-day, halts and fails.” After decades as an officer Mahan was familiar with that failure to press ahead, that failure to trust. He had seen it in others as well as himself, and taught his students the only way to overcome such doubt was to trust. Trust doesn’t stop with captains. If commanding officers believe they have the trust of their superiors, they are much more likely to pass that trust down the chain of command. They also are more likely to trust in their own decisions if they don’t have staffs or superiors constantly second-guessing them. Successful military leadership requires many attributes, but Mahan, in his studies of command and leadership throughout naval history, came to a very important conclusion: Leaders such as Admiral Nelson reach greatness because of “the inborn natural power to trust; to trust himself and others.” 11

21st-Century Leadership

Perhaps it is the Navy’s traditional focus on matériel and technology. Perhaps it is uniquely America ideals such as manifest destiny and American exceptionalism. Perhaps it is simple ego. Whatever the cause, there is a tendency for modern naval officers to consider the challenges they face as something new and unique to their time. Over the past several decades present-minded naval officers have become dismissive of Alfred Thayer Mahan’s writings, often discounting the value of history or the ideas of a man whom they have been taught cared only about battleships and colonies.

However, the moral background required to successfully execute the special trust and confidence inherent in an officer’s commission—especially that imparted to commanding officers—has not changed much in centuries. Mahan taught and wrote about them more than a century ago, and he focused on three important elements. First, leaders need to avoid the administrative mindset and remember that their decisions need to be based on the ultimate goal of combat effectiveness. Second, leaders must learn to accept risk and to use it to their advantage. Third, successful commanding officers must learn to trust in their subordinates—as well as trust in their own decisions.

The teachings of Mahan have much to offer the officers of the 21st century. From discussions of how to construct a balanced Fleet, to the economic, political, and military considerations of globalization, to questions of command and leadership, the great navalist studied it all. Mahan wrote, “there is, at all events, no perplexity exceeding that with which men of former times haven’t dealt successfully.” 12 By studying our history and realizing the proper place for administration, the importance of accepting risk, and the central place of trust in leadership, today’s naval commanders can find success in a challenging future.

1. James Holmes, “What’s the Matter with Mahan?” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings , May 2011.

2. Alfred Thayer Mahan, “The Principles of Naval Administration,” in Naval Administration and Warfare: Some General Principles (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1918), 11. (Printed after Mahan’s death.)

3. Mahan, “The Principles of Naval Administration,” 13.

4. Adam B. Lowther, “The Post 9/11 American Serviceman,” Joint Force Quarterly , No. 58, 3rd Quarter 2010.

5. Tim Kane, “Why Our Best Military Officers are Leaving,” The Atlantic , January/February 2011.

6. Alfred Thayer Mahan, “Considerations Governing the Dispositions of Navies,” in Retrospect and Prospect: Studies in International Relations, Naval and Political , (Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1902), 189.

7. Jan Van Tol, “Worse Than a Crime, A Mistake,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings , May 2008. Mahan quote reprinted in Alfred Thayer Mahan, Lessons of the War with Spain and Other Articles (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1899), 23.

8. Paul Yingling, “Here is Why You Should Always Keep a FRAGO and a Captain Between You and the Problem,” The Best Defense , 16 September, 2011: http://ricks.foreignpolicy.com/posts/2011/09/16/befehl_staktik_iv_here_i... .

9. Alfred Thayer Mahan, The Life of Nelson: The Embodiment of the Sea Power of Great Britain , vol. 1 (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1899), 40.

10. Alfred Thayer Mahan, “The Strength of Nelson,” in Naval Administration and Warfare: Some General Principles , (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1918), 295.

11. Mahan, “The Strength of Nelson,” 303.

12. Mahan, “Considerations Governing the Dispositions of Navies,” 175.

Lieutenant Commander Armstrong pilots an MH-60S Knighthawk in Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron 28, Norfolk, Virginia. He is a regular contributor to Proceedings , Naval History and the USNI Blog. His book, 21st Century Mahan: Sound Military Conclusions for the Modern Era , is forthcoming in June 2013 from Naval Institute Press.


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