November 2022

Leveraging the Power of Conflict to Improve Results

by Ron Hewett

In August of 1990 enroute to the First Gulf War I sailed the USS Kiska, one of the Navy's largest ammunition ships, into Pearl Harbor. I was immediately overcome by the sense of history that Pearl Harbor represents. In front of us was the USS Arizona Memorial bearing witness to the devastating attack and the challenge it brought to the American people. Fifty years earlier Admiral Chester Nimitz had seized upon that opportunity and demonstrated how leveraging conflict within his own team would spell success for the U.S. Pacific fleet during WWII. Every leader can learn from this story.

In December of 1941, Chester Nimitz arrived in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii to take command of the U.S. Pacific Fleet after the devastating Japanese attack. If any leader ever had the right to say the total weight of the world was on their shoulders, it had to be Admiral Nimitz who was now tasked with stopping the Imperial Japanese thrust toward the U.S. Pacific coast and total domination of the Pacific Ocean.

Nimitz immediately met with his assembled staff who fully expected to be dismissed as scapegoats for the disaster earlier that month. They did not need to be reminded of the shame they felt but knew despite their gallant efforts there would be accountability. But Nimitz surprised everyone when he began to speak and told them he had total confidence in them and that now the challenge would be to salvage their pride and work together to turn the tide of battle and prosecute the U.S. strategy. They were expected to hold the line then begin meticulously planning and executing an "island-hopping" strategy that would take them across the Pacific into Tokyo Bay.

In addition to resurrecting his staff's mojo, Admiral Nimitz had other challenges. His boss, Admiral Ernest King in Washington, was demanding and forceful and wanted results regardless of the toll or effort required. In the Pacific, Nimitz's primary subordinates were Admiral "Terrible" Turner, his surface ship commander, Admiral "Bull" Halsey his aviation commander, and his Marine commander General "Howling Mad" Smith, named for their temperaments and demanding styles. Admiral Nimitz knew them all well and was prepared to bring this team together for a common goal.

In short order the American fleet fought several decisive battles with the onrushing Japanese fleet then ambushed the Imperial Navy at Midway Island and turned the tide of battle. In August of 1943 the bloody battle of Guadalcanal was underway, demonstrating that the American fleet was prepared to go on the offensive. Nimitz's faith in his staff had been well-placed and he became more and more assured in their abilities. But despite relying on them implicitly, he knew as a leader he was still the final decision maker.

Nimitz was known as a listener. He valued subordinates' opinions, and his style was on full display as his staff gathered in December 1943 to determine the next campaign objective. Would it be the outer islands, surrounding strategically important Kwajalein, or the main island itself? Intelligence and the advice of one of his commanders encouraged Nimitz to go directly at Kwajalein. But other senior admirals advised that the outer islands had to be neutralized first. Nimitz went around the room soliciting everyone's fact-based opinion. Nearly all in the room argued for the outer islands. Nimitz listened intently to their arguments, then he startled them all by announcing they would attack Kwajalein first. Nimitz was asked by the most senior advisors to reconsider. He held fast and ordered the planning to start. The attack was relentlessly carried out, and America kept on the move westward.

We can learn from Nimitz's style:

  1. Have a consistent leadership philosophy. His staff knew what to expect and performed to his standards. They trusted his character and style.
  2. Coach your reports so that they can grow professionally, then trust their insights.
  3. When urgency prevails, don't shy from tough decisions. Go right at the objective.
  4. Pick your personal battles. Argue the data. If the data suggests a course of action other than your original path, work hard to understand the choices.
  5. Expect compromise. Develop your direct reports to understand the value of objectively looking at the options. Everyone needs to listen–everyone should speak candidly.
  6. Demand collaboration. Once a decision is cast, the entire team is to contribute to a successful solution.

Admiral Nimitz remained commander of the Pacific fleet for four years from Pearl Harbor to victory in Tokyo Bay. His leadership is recognized as a primary factor in the Allied victory over Japan. Put these elements into play so you can get the best out of your team's energy and their diversity of talent and ideas.