Reviewed by Rear Admiral Ed Keats, USN (Ret.)
Greg Slavonic, justifiably proud of rising from Seaman Apprentice to Rear Admiral in the Navy, considers the United States military services to be a superior clan. This conceit has caused him to write Leadership in Action and encouraged him boldly to announce as the sub-title, Principles forged in the crucible of military service can lead corporate America back to the top. He provides fifteen sketches about members of the military services, extracting from their careers those parts he sees as examples of the skills they exhibited in leadership. All of the accounts disregard other facets of their lives.
The basis of the book is the proposition that corporate America has fallen from the top it once occupied and can return by taking his advice on leadership, as if the reversion were so simple. Slavonic, however, neglects even to offer proof of the fall of corporate America. It is obvious he passionately believes that big corporations do not lead as well as they should. He does not identify, however, why or how such a failure occurred. To him the descent appears clear enough to remove the need to explain. He adheres to many widespread political and cultural beliefs in America’s decline. Thus, he feels comfortable in simply announcing that if those in charge of the non-military part of the United States would follow the examples of outstanding military officers the result would be an improvement in the functioning of corporate America.
Some of the military figures, such as General David Petraeus and Admiral Elmo Zumwalt, portrayed by Slavonic as examples of leadership are well recognized. His choice of others is questionable. One in particular, Commander Lloyd Bucher, although eventually cleared by a court martial, has had many naval officers disparage him for surrendering his ship, Pueblo, to North Korean attackers without engaging in a substantial fight. More damaging to the reputation of overall naval leadership was the action of the naval high command in the Western Pacific in not dispatching assistance promptly to Bucher when the North Koreans attacked. Later they even refused to give support to the minimal actions he took.
Another counter to Slavonic’s thesis comes from the early days of World War II. The U.S. Navy’s torpedo firing mechanisms failed to initiate an explosion when torpedoes hit Japanese ships. During the first years of the war, submarine commanders were frustrated when they took risks to gain a position to fire their torpedoes and after firing heard them hit Japanese ships but not detonate. Reports from the Fleet told of the malfunctions. The senior officers at the Navy’s Bureau of Ordnance demonstrated their leadership by claiming that the fault must lay with the method of firing, as nothing was or could be wrong with the Bureau’s own product, designed and manufactured in the Bureau’s own facility. They completely dismissed the complaints. However, test firings conducted by the thwarted Pacific submarine command against underwater rocks clearly demonstrated that the firing mechanisms were faulty. Finally, civilian contractors engaged by direct orders from top naval officials over the opposition of the Bureau, redesigned the explosive process to make it reliable.
Slavonic would have his readers believe without providing any evidence in the improvement in leadership by the Navy and other military services during recent years while the civilian world was declining in effectiveness. If corporate America followed the military’s example of leadership, he asserts, their results would bring them “back to the top.” He focuses on leadership while ignoring the beneficial effects innovation and forward thinking have had on corporate America. He also overlooks the demonstrated leadership of Bill Gates, Warren Buffet and similar outstanding people.
Memorial Hall at the Naval Academy displays banners, paintings, statues and documents commemorating the achievements of naval heroes. Its artifacts are devoted to bravery while its walls avoid describing the qualities of leadership the heroes exhibited. Naval Academy officials over the years have obviously assumed leadership of naval officers as a fundamental part of their intrepidity. Special commendation of their leadership qualities was never necessary.
Slavonic displays a machismo attitude toward women. In the biographical accounts of men the references to them is always by their surnames as “O’Shea is a recognized…” and O’Shea is a qualified…” With Major Paula Broadwell (author of the sketch of General Petraeus) he reduces her to just a given name, “Paula served as the Deputy…” and “Paula is a Ph.D. …”
The book feels incomplete from a lack of endnotes and an index.
Slavonic has added one more to the ever-expanding shelf of books on leadership. However his book suffers from his avoidance of examples to support his theme of the certainty of corporate America’s improvement should those in control follow the examples of military leadership.
Retired Rear Admiral Keats participated in the battles for Tarawa, Saipan, Iwo Jima and Okinawa in World War II.