in: Behavior, Character, Podcast

• Last updated: September 30, 2021

Podcast #571: The Voyage of Character

Good character is hard to define in the abstract, but easy to identify when it’s embodied in the lives of great individuals. In order to illuminate what worthy character looks like, my guest today has written a book which consists of profiles of 10 of history’s most notable admirals, marking out both their inspiring and flawed qualities, as well as how these qualities intersected with their ability to lead. His name is Admiral James Stavridis, he served as the commander of US Southern Command, US European Command, and NATO Supreme Allied Commander Europe, and is now the dean of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. On today’s show, the admiral talks about many of the figures in his latest book, Sailing True North: Ten Admirals and the Voyage of Character, including Themistocles, Sir Francis Drake, Horatio Nelson, and Chester Nimitz. We take a look at what these individuals did well, what they did poorly, and how their characteristics, decisions, qualities, and overall moral compass impacted their leadership and influence. 

Show Highlights

  • The difference between leadership and character (and why they’re often erroneously used interchangeably) 
  • The complex reality of human nature, and how we can learn even from failures of character and leadership
  • Who was Themistocles? What can we learn from him?
  • What about ancient Chinese commander Zheng He?
  • Sir Francis Drake’s decisiveness 
  • Why Horatio Nelson was perhaps the greatest admiral of all time 
  • What we can learn from the academic Alfred Thayer Mahan 
  • Why was Chester Nimitz the “admiral’s admiral”?
  • Grace Hopper and the power of intellectual curiosity 

Resources/People/Articles Mentioned in Podcast

Sailing True North by James stavridis book cover.

Connect With Admiral James Stavridis

Admiral Stavridis on Twitter

Admiral Stavridis’ website

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Read the Transcript

Brett McKay: Hey, before we get to the show quick favor to ask of you. If you haven’t done so already, I’d appreciate if you take one minute to give us your review on Apple Podcast or Stitcher, whatever podcast player you use to listen to the AOM podcast. Reviews help the podcast grow, help more people discover the show. So, please do that. And if you haven’t done so already, please consider sharing this show with a friend or family member who you would think would get something out of it. Shoot them a text, or an email with one of your favorite episodes from 2019. Word of mouth is the primary way the AOM podcast grew. Thank you for your continued support. And now, on to the show.

Welcome to another edition of The Art of Manliness podcast. Good character is hard to define in the abstract, but easy to identify when it’s embodied in the lives of great individuals. In order to illuminate what worthy character looks like, my guest today has written a book, which consist of profiles of 10 of his recent most notable admirals. Making out both their inspiring and flawed qualities, as well as how these qualities intersected with their ability to lead. His name is Admiral James Stavridis. He served as the Commander of US Southern Command, US European Command and NATO Supreme ALEC Commander in Europe. And is now the Dean of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.

On today’s show the Admiral talked about many of the figures in his latest book, Sailing True North: 10 Admirals in the Voyage of Character. Including Themistocles, Sir Francis Drake, Horatio Nelson, and Chester Nimitz. We take a look at what these individuals did well, what they did poorly and how their characteristics, decisions, qualities and overall moral compass impacted their leadership and influence. After the show’s over, check out our show notes at AOM.IS/TrueNorth.

All right, Admiral Stavridis, welcome back to the show.

Admiral Stavridis: Great to be on The Art of Manliness again, Brett.

Brett McKay: So, we had you on, it was last year, 2018, to talk about your book, The Leader’s Bookshelf, where you told four star generals and admirals to get their recommendations on the best book for leaders. And I know our listeners really enjoyed that. That’s episode 373 for those who want to check that out.

You got a new book out called, Sailing True North: 10 Admirals and the Voyage of Character, where you look at 10 great admirals from history and try to find the leadership lessons and character lessons from them. And we’ll discuss, talk about some of these admirals. But before we do, in the book you make this distinction between character and leadership. And you say, these words are often used synonymously. But you think it’s important to make a distinction between the two. So, first off, why do you think these words are used synonymously and why do you think it’s important to make that distinction?

Admiral Stavridis: They are often confused, and they’re two, in my view, quite distinct elements. And the first one, let’s start with leadership. Think of leadership as a big enormous door that swings through the world influencing others. And that door is somewhat indiscriminate, right? In other words, we can think of Franklin Elanor Roosevelt as a great leader. He influences millions, he leads the country through The Great Depression and through The Second World War.

But you know what? Paul Pot, the dictator of Cambodia was a great leader. He was quite capable of reorganizing and inspiring a society and he ended up killing about a third of the people in the killing fields of Cambodia. But those big doors of leadership can swing for good or for ill. And I would say that, Brett, the hinge of that door, the hinge upon which that big door of leadership swings is called character.

It’s the human heart. And what’s in that heart, and what kind of character a leader has is what will determine whether that big door of leadership swings for good purpose or for terrible evil in some cases. So, bottom line, leadership is the door, but big doors often swing on small hinges. And I wanted to write a book about character because I think we’re kind of overweight in leadership books. Everybody’s got a leadership book out there. But not too many people are writing, or thinking coherently about character. So, that was kind of the purpose going in.

And of course, I framed it up using what I know, the oceans, the lives of great admirals, to try and illustrate some of the challenges that these 10 admirals experienced over 2500 years of recorded history.

Brett McKay: And one other thing about character, it’s hard… With leadership books you can kind of do the bullet point tactics of what it means to be a good leader, like listen carefully, praise people. But character, that’s hard to do, distill down into bullet points.

Admiral Stavridis: It is. And the reason is that character comes to us through a different channel, if you will, than leadership skills. Character comes to us initially, I would argue, from our parents, our family, when we’re small. There’s a great deal of what’s built into your psychology that becomes your character. And then, your education secondly, I think builds character. And reading and inculcating new ideas through the educational process, which for most of us goes on for close to two decades if you stop and think about it.

And then, thirdly, your life experience. At that end of the day, we all collide with the real world and how those events unfold for us deeply, deeply sharpens our character. Particularly I think in our 20s. And character then, I think, kind of sets in place in your 30s and 40s. You can still change elements of your character throughout your life, but it gets harder and harder. So, at the end of the day, I wanted to create a book that could help be a bit of a road map, or to use a nautical metaphor, a set of buoys for how character is created and how you can examine and evaluate your own character.

Brett McKay: And also, the stories are very powerful in conveying character. But yet, you can’t do it a bullet point, but if you just tell the story of an individual it can be inspiring, right? In a subtle way.

Admiral Stavridis: That’s absolutely right. And at one point I was going to title the book, Sea Stories, like stories from the sea. But at the end of the day, I like that image of sailing true north. I think there’s something powerful and compelling in it. And by the way, of the 10 admirals in the book, not all of them sailed true north every day of their lives. Some of them quite far from it.

And I think, to your point, we learn both from inspiring stories of good people showing us positive attributes of character. We can also learn from people who are fundamentally dark. There are dark currents in the human heart. And by learning and recognizing those, I think, they become counter examples for us. And there are some of these admirals who definitely fit that side of the equation as well.

Brett McKay: And we’ll talk about one of them, Pirate. We’re going to get to that guy. But let’s talk about this first admiral you highlighted, Themistocles, famous Greek admiral. Tell us about his world that he lived in, and what challenges as a leader that he faced.

Admiral Stavridis: Well, first of all, as you know Brett, I’m Greek American. So I’m contractually required to have a Greek in every story I tell, every book I write. So, it was always a given that we were going to go back to the ancient Greeks, and find somebody who faced big challenges of character. And that was certainly the case for Themistocles. He lived about 2500 years ago, and he was the leading political actor, and also the leading military admiral, if you will. The leader of the Athenian naval forces in the wars between Greece and the Persian Empire.

And Themistocles faced an existential challenge. The Persian Empire was vast, and it encompassed at that time about half of the world’s population. It stretched from present day India to the Mediterranean Sea and the Western Coast of Turkey. Think about that for a moment. And as far south as the Arabian Peninsula, as far north as the Black Sea. It was an enormous, powerful militarily capable empire. And they decided they wanted to conquer Greece.

They edged up to Athens. Athens was the final city, the final major city. And the Persian Empire, Xerxes sent a massive fleet of these triremes, these great road warships, road by, in the case of the Persians, slaves. And Themistocles is knowing he faced this existential threat. Gathered up all this oarsmen, and his ship captains and the marines who would cross over and fight on the decks of the other ships, the night before the battle. And he said to them, “Look, we’re out numbered, perhaps 10 to one. Yet, we have one great advantage. All of you, every one in this fleet from the youngest oarsman to the most senior captains were all free men.” Yet, in these Persian ships all of the oarsmen, the vast majority of the propulsion of these warships were slaves.

And Themistocles said to his oarsmen, and his captains, and his warriors, “Tomorrow there will be a great battle at sea. And tomorrow you must row for your families, for your wives, for your children, for your parents. Tomorrow you must row for your city. And tomorrow you must row for freedom, for freedom itself.”

And with that charisma and that inner strength of character he conveyed and inspired, and on the morrow the Greek fleet destroyed the Persian fleet in an extraordinary battle. Still studied today at Annapolis at the Naval Academy by the way. So, I think he’s a good first example of the power of inner character, particularly to inspire others. Again, that small hinge of character swinging the big door of leadership.

But I’ll close with something on the darker side, which is that he was also extremely arrogant, prideful. And after this enormous victory he went back to Athens and attempted to completely overtake the politics of this free city, and eventually was banished. And ended his life in the court of the Persian Emperor. It’s a Greek tragedy, and it’s a story of Hydrus and how sometimes our greatest strength can be our greatest weakness as well. That’s Themistocles from Sailing True North.

Brett McKay: As you’ve studied Themistocles, what have you taken away? That you’ve noticed that you’ve taken something from Themistocles and applied it to your own role as a leader in the Navy?

Admiral Stavridis: I began to hear about Themistocles when I was a boy from my father. And it was always a cautionary tale. And the caution is, no matter how successful you are, and even at the very peak of success in your life, avoid arrogance. Avoid that tendency to over reach. Exercise humility. That’s the real lesson of Themistocles. And tragically for Themistocles, it is a negative lesson for us as we see him. That’s what I take away from that.

And in every job I’ve had when I was a ship captain, or the commodore of a group of destroyers, or commander of an aircraft carrier, strike group in combat, or supreme ally commander in NATO, I’ve always had that little voice in the back of my head saying, “Hey, you’re not the center of the universe here. You have a role to play, but you are only part of something that is vastly greater than yourself.” That’s a good little voice to have in the back of your head.

Brett McKay: So, the next admiral you highlight is Zheng He, I think I pronounced that right. A Chinese admiral. Tell us about him.

Admiral Stavridis: He was lived about 100 years before Christopher Columbus. So, in the early 1400s. So, while the Europeans are putting together the expeditions that discover America, if you will, they were sailing in quite small ships, about 150 feet long, maybe 60 people. 100 years earlier Zheng He is in command of a Chinese fleet where the ships are 500 to 600 feet long, and carry 300 or 400 mariners. China, at this time, is a regional power that had the capability to become a global power but chose not to.

Zheng He led these treasure expeditions and economic expeditions that sailed from the South China Sea through the straight of Malacca, in to the Indian Ocean, to the Arabian Peninsula, to the coast of Africa. Enormous, enormous sea voyages. He was at the right hand of the Yongle Emperor of the time. But here’s what you want to know about Zheng He, resilience.

When he was 10 years old he was captured in a raid, was a small boy, was enslaved and then castrated. And as a eunuch rose from those horrific circumstances to the pinnacle of military power in the Chinese Empower. It’s an extraordinary story of resilience and the character lesson is that no matter how far down you are you can still come back if you exercise discipline, and calmness of spirit. And a willingness to face the challenges and overcome them. And that’s the story of Zheng He. He’s a figure of great resilience.

Brett McKay: Well, the character, yeah, actually you got was resilience. But then you also, when you’re talking about Zheng He, you admired his… You talked about how you admired his organizational ability as a leader.

Admiral Stavridis: Yeah, remarkable. And again, think about the ability here because he was not just a commander of these fleets. He was the constructor. He was the naval architect. He designed them. He was given the power to conscript as many people as necessary. He built shipyards to build these enormous wooden structures. He effectively invented the idea, these large sailing ships with massive crews. So, that organizational ability, I think, is also much at the heart of Zheng He.

Brett McKay: And what did you take away from him? How did you apply the lessons from him in your own leadership career?

Admiral Stavridis: Yeah, two things, and we’ve touched on both of them. One is any task, no matter how big it is, you can reduce it to small components and methodically execute it. That’s organization. And I always say it’s like graduate school, or any school really, doing well in school is not about being smart. It’s about being organized and breaking down learning into small chunks that you can inculcate.

So, organizational skill, and the other thing I think, again, is this idea of resilience. Hard to imagine a harder starting line in a race than being enslaved at age 10 and castrated. When you put that in perspective your day doesn’t look so bad, does it? And I think that has been a helpful take away for me.

Brett McKay: Another tid bit that I got from the book is he was a practicing Muslim, which was interesting. He’s in the Ming Court. He’s probably a religious minority but he’s still able to do well in that environment.

Admiral Stavridis: Absolutely, and I think this goes to another attribute, which you will, it’s flexibility. It’s not being utterly dogmatic about things. Several of the admirals, perhaps, we’ll talk about later were very certain of themselves at all times. I think Zheng He comes through the ages, and of course this is 500 years ago. It’s difficult to have precise descriptions of individuals like we get today. But Zheng He comes across in historical record as someone who will mold himself to the circumstances. And I think probably being a Muslim in a Confucian Court would lead to that.

Brett McKay: The next leader you included on your list is a pirate, which is not something you’d expect in a book about leadership lessons from admirals. And that’s Sir Francis Drake. So, what can we learn from Sir Francis Drake about leadership and character.

Admiral Stavridis: Yes, this is a classic. The good, the bad, and the ugly. The good of Sir Francis Drake is he’s utterly decisive. He’s a gifted mariner. He is someone who can inspire his subordinates. And he, as a result, he circumnavigates the earth for the first time. He’s the first commander who makes the entire circumnavigation of the world, and survives. Magellan’s famous voyage did circumnavigate the globe but Magellan died before the voyage was complete. Drake is the first one to lead an expedition and survive going all the way around the world.

Secondly, he leads the British forces that defeat the Spanish Armata. And like Themistocles, is an existential threat to England. And he succeeds. So, he has great gifts of decisiveness and command, that’s the good.

The bad is he is the dark currents we talked about truly flow through his heart. He is rapacious. He is driven by a desire to amass great wealth. His burning ambition allows him to overcome what many others would face as moral and ethical boundaries. So, the good, the bad, and the ugly is his techniques include enslavement, rape, murder, summary executions of his crew. He is a dark, dark figure, very much a pirate. And on a slightly lighter note for any of the listeners who have been to the ride at Disney World, The Pirates of Caribbean, it’s based on the exploits, if you will, of Sir Francis Drake in the Caribbean. A very dark figure but a very compelling one as well.

Brett McKay: That’s a great example of being a good leader but not having the character to go along with it.

Admiral Stavridis: Exactly.

Brett McKay: We’re going to take a quick break for a word from our sponsors. And now back to the show. So, any list of great admirals wouldn’t be complete without Horatio Nelson. For those who aren’t familiar with him, tell us a bit about his career and his lasting influence on the British Navy and culture.

Admiral Stavridis: Yeah, I think he’s arguably the greatest admiral in history in a certain sense. Like a couple of the other admirals we’ve discussed, England at this time is facing an existential threat from Napoleon Bonaparte, who if he could have built the ships and overcome the British Navy could, I believe, successfully have invaded the British Isles. So, Nelson is commander of the British fleet at this time. He is on patrol off the coast of Spain in a place called Trafalgar, near Cape Trafalgar. And he fights a battle with the combined fleets of France and Spain and utterly destroys them.

It’s the greatest single sided victory at sea I can imagine. And with everything riding on it. The only one that matches up with it, I suppose, is Themistocles back at the Battle of Salamis, who saves his city’s state, Athens. But here’s the difference, Horatio Nelson dies in the battle. And there’s nothing better for your reputation than dying right at the absolute peak of an enormous victory. And your last words are God and country, protect my wife. He is really, in every sense, becomes the iconic admiral. And is still heroically regarded in Great Britain.

In fact, many folks have been to London and gone to Trafalgar Square, right? In the heart of London. And on it is a plinth and at the top of it is an enormous statue of Horatio Nelson. In that sense, it’s like if you think of it in terms of Washington DC, it’s like the Lincoln Memorial and the Jefferson Memorial kind of put together. And he is so highly regarded. That’s the good news.

Here’s the bad news: his moral compass didn’t always sail true north, in the sense of he had a long term adulterous affair with a very beautiful young actress, Emma Hamilton. Conceived a daughter, a child, born out of wedlock, named her after himself by the way, Hirashia. And he was scandalous in that regard. It’s hard to overstate how society, at that time, looked at an arrangement like that, which was frankly quite public and thus, people were quite scandalized by it. Then, secondly, we would say today he was kind of a publicity hound. He just loved to get his voice out there, get his engage publicly. He needed public acclimation.

So, a few failings on the moral side, but overall, in terms of his impact on the naval profession, got to score him really at the top. And last thought, his great gift and what I take away from Lord Nelson was his ability to build teams. All of his ship captains worshiped him. He just inspired people with his kind of simplicity of command, and his kindness to his sailors in an age in which the lash was commonly used. He refused to do so, he took incredible care of his sailors, making sure they had the best food, the best doctors. He was a beloved as a leader.

And he inspired this idea of the band of brothers. His ship captains operated together better than any other military unit in modern military history. And thus, he won this epic battle of Trafalgar.

Brett McKay: And how have you developed your team building capacity as a leader during your career? I mean, any lessons you took away personally from him on team building?

Admiral Stavridis: Indeed, mentioned one of them, which is obsessive concern about living conditions, logistical support, taking care of people in very visible ways. Nelson walked the decks of his ships constantly, went into every corner of the ships, made sure that things were right for the sailors. People will reward you when you do that. And then, secondly, that near peer network, the people who are at your level or just below are often the most honest observers who will give you the best advice. Nelson did both of those things brilliantly. He took care of people below him, he reached out to the left and the right, to the peers around him, built these bands of brothers.

I took both those lessons, particularly for example when I was a young ship captain for the first time on USS Mary, a gnarly burke destroyer. I would walk that ship hour after hour, day after day. I loved that crew, and they saw that. And secondly, talking to the other captains on the waterfront, learning from each other and that band of brothers mentality served me well throughout all the days of my career.

Brett McKay: Another character strength of Horatio Nelson that I took away from your section on him was his resilience as well. He lost an arm, lost a leg. He had sea sickness even though his career was being an admiral.

Admiral Stavridis:  He was. He was also a very small guy, which is one of the reasons I like him. I’m like a towering 5’5″. Lord Nelson was 5’4″, small even for those days and he weighed, I don’t know, 125 pounds. I’ve seen his uniform hanging in the British Royal Museum. It looks like a boy’s uniform. He’s a small, slight man, yet he was fearless in battle. Would often lead boarding parties when he was a junior officer. And as you say, he lost his right arm, which he was right handed and had to reteach himself to fight and to write with his left hand. Some very valuable archives, by the way, are letters that he wrote as a left-hander as he was learning to write again.

And then he lost an eye in a subsequent battle. And he was the quintessential small, but very tough, kind of individual that you just have to admire. And yes, the resilience was a big part of that. Last point, back to the blinded one eye thing, he was also a kind of difficult subordinate. He was great to his peers, great to the people who worked for him. He didn’t always do exactly what his bosses wanted him to do. And if he saw a signal at sea, and of course ships are maneuvered at sea, in these days, by flapping signal flags in the breeze. If he didn’t like the signal from his senior’s flagship he would often put the telescope to his blind eye and claim he didn’t see a signal. And then, do whatever the hell he wanted to do. Fortunately for him, it virtually always came out better than what his boss had wanted him to do. But Brett, that’s where the expression “to turn a blind eye” to something comes from, from Lord Nelson and his telescope to his blind eye.

Brett McKay: That’s a good bit of trivia you can drop at a party.

Admiral Stavridis: Yeah, next time you’re on Jeopardy.

Brett McKay: Right. So, the next admiral you talk about, we’re finally getting into US admirals, American admirals. And the first one you included was an academic. He’s an academic admiral named Alfred Thayer Mahan. Tell us about him, his influence on the US Navy.

Admiral Stavridis: Sure, you cannot overstate the strategic influence of Alfred Thayer Mahan. He was not a good sailor. He was mediocre at best in command of ships. In fact, one of his fitness reports actually had a line in it that said, “Captain Mahan needs to develop his ship handling skills. And it is not the business of naval officers to write books.” Because of course, that’s what he really was skilled at. He was a writer. A strategic analyst who built a plan for an emerging global US Navy. He’s living at the end of the 19th Century in the 1800s. And he absolutely crafts the ideas that went into Teddy Roosevelt and The Great White Fleet. He’s the one who comes up with the idea of building global naval basis all around the world. He sketches out the future of America as a world sea power and write a whole series of books about this, which are still used today, and by the way, are studied by other nations. China, today in the 21st Century, is building that kind of global naval capability that Alfred Thayer Mahan wrote about well over 100 years ago.

So, intellectual, brilliant, but kind of a mediocre operator and personally, a very cold person. Not someone who had a lot of empathy for others. He was scholarly. Dostoevsky said somewhere that intellectual is a man with spectacles on his nose and winter in his heart. That was kind of Alfred Thayer Mahan. A brilliant mind, but not high emotional intelligence to go with it.

Brett McKay: So, what lessons have you applied in your own career as an admiral from him?

Admiral Stavridis: Well first of all, certainly all the strategic thinking. But in the context of our conversation today about character and leadership, I took two things away from him. One, his relentless, relentless pursuit of the truth, of find the facts wherever they lead you as you write the strategy. He was a researcher who wanted all the facts. That’s pretty powerful.

And then, secondly, life balance. If you want to have a fulfilling life, at least for me, and I think for most people, you have to let other people into your heart. You have to spend time with others. You have to have real empathy for others. That was his flaw, and I’ve often thought in my own context how important it is to find that time to connect with family and friends. Not always easy in these lives and careers we lead, but a powerful counter lesson that I take away from Alfred Thayer Mahan.

Brett McKay: So, a leader needs to think about those high level things, like strategy, but also get out from the ivory tower and be able to interact on them-

Admiral Stavridis: Exactly, very well said. Very well said.

Brett McKay: So, you talk about Chester Nimitz, and I think people might be familiar with the name, because there’s a carrier named after him. Who was Chester Nimitz and why is he known as the admiral’s admiral?

Admiral Stavridis: Yeah. He’s certainly the greatest of the American admirals. I would say he’s the Nelson, the Lord Nelson of the United States of America. And he’s born in the early part of the 20th Century. He’s born a million miles from the ocean in a small town in Central Texas called Fredericksburg, Texas, not too far from Austin in the Hill Country of Texas. He’s in a German speaking family when he’s born before World War I. And then, wants to go to West Point, you know he’s a land kind of guy. He’s probably never seen the ocean. Until he fails to get into West Point and then, is selected to go to Annapolis to the US Naval Academy. And adapts himself, and his gifts as he rises through the ranks and his progress is steady but not spectacular. His gift is his empathy, his quiet confidence, his calm demeanor. He reminds me a lot of Zheng He as we understand the Chinese admiral over the centuries. I think the two of them, Nimitz and Zheng He would have been quite similar.

But they were also both large men, had physical stature going for them. They both were very skilled organizers. They both were quietly confident. Chester Nimitz never had to go through what Zheng He did in his youth, obviously. But Nimitz had this gift of inspiring confidence in others without being the smartest person in the room, without raising his voice, without being flamboyant. And it’s interesting to contrast him, for example, with his army counterpart at the time, General Douglas MacArthur, who was that flamboyant, loud, charismatic, got to be the bride at every wedding and the corpse at every funeral kind of personality. Nimitz was the opposite of that.

And I’ll close on Nimitz by saying picture this in terms of resilience, this is his Zheng He moment. He finally gets command of the Pacific Fleet. That’s the good news. The bad news is he gets it two weeks after Pearl Harbor, the fleet is destroyed. All the battleships are sunk. Cordite is in the air in Pearl Harbor, bodies are being pulled out of these ships. The carriers are out at sea dodging the Japanese. All that’s left in that port are a few diesel submarines, small, stinky, oily little boats. So, instead of taking command on a beautiful day, standing on a gorgeous battleship in his service dress whites, Chester Nimitz takes command of what’s left of the Pacific Fleet, standing on the deck of a tiny diesel submarine.

And what does he do? He squares his shoulders. He keeps almost everybody from the previous staff because he knows what happened at Pearl Harbor could have happened to anybody. He builds teams. He does that Nelsonian thing of building and working with his peers. Only Nimitz could have subdued the flamboyant personality of Douglas MacArthur. Only Nimitz could have melded a team that includes Admiral Bull Halsey, the most flamboyant of American admirals, and the biggest publicity hound we’ve ever produced. Only Nimitz had that kind of self effacing, take the big tasks, beat the Japanese Empire, but break it down into small bits. Let’s rebuild the fleet. Let’s overhaul the ships. Let’s fix everything we can. Let’s figure out where the Japanese are going. Let’s build a strategy. Let’s work with MacArthur. Let’s get all my admirals together. Slowly, methodically, three and a half years later we sign the Declaration of Surrender of the Japanese Empire in Tokyo Bay. That is a trajectory of real character above all.

Brett McKay: No, that’s the thing that stood out to me when I read about him is his discretion. He often times would… He saw the big picture, and he’d often times do things that, in the short term, might have looked weak for a leader to do. But he understood, he’s playing the long game and he knew that if he did that it would help the overall goal that he was going for.

Admiral Stavridis: That’s absolutely right. Let me give you an example from my own career. When I was a four star admiral for the first time, and my job was to be commander of the US Southern Command. Everything south of the United States, all the military activity, and Latin America, Caribbean, Central America and so forth. My instinct was to rush into very high level military kind of exercises. What I decided instead was to play that long game, which is don’t use the heavy hitter, big carriers, cruisers. The long game is soft power in a place like Latin America and the Caribbean. It’s medical diplomacy, it’s a quiet counter narcotics and intelligence work. It’s counter insurgency in Columbia. It’s building schools, wells and clinics. It is literacy training. Playing that long game was very, very powerful for me in that job. And this is before I became the NATO commander. That was a very different job. But in that job I really drew on the lessons of Chester Nimitz.

Brett McKay: Did you find any weaknesses in his leadership or his character?

Admiral Stavridis: I really can’t. With Nimitz, I think he’s as close to perfect as you can come, at least the way I look at people. I suppose you could say, well he didn’t have that kind of crackling charisma, he wasn’t one to leap up and give the flashy perfect press conference. I’m not sure that’s as important in a leader for me as those inner quiet qualities of character are. So, again, big door of leadership swings on that small hinge. I take that hinge of Nimitz over anybody else in this book.

Brett McKay: So, throughout all these admirals you highlight, they all have different traits that they’ve exemplified in character traits and leadership abilities. Did you find a common thread between all of them, like attributes that they all possess and had in common?

Admiral Stavridis: I don’t think there is a single trait that all of them possessed but I’m going to add 10 seconds about one other admiral. I know this is The Art of Manliness but there is a woman admiral in the book. And that is Admiral Grace Hopper. She’s the last admiral in the book in terms of chronology. And she’s a computer scientist, a mathematician. She’s completely different than all the other admirals. But she has a quality character trait that I think is vitally important and that’s intellectual curiosity. As a seven year old she starts disassembling alarm clocks trying to figure out how they work. Her whole life is one of finding out and learning. She’s also wonderful to be around. I’ve met her several times. Just a dynamic, funny woman. She writes the computer program Cobalt, essentially inventing the idea of programming computers at the end of the Second World War, and serves on active duty as an admiral longer than any other admiral in American history, other than Hymen Rickover.

So, Grace Hopper has intellectual curiosity. So, I suppose if there were one quality that every one of these admirals had it would be that. That they were curious about the world, and willing to try new things. Intellectual curiosity often related to creativity. Not always, but I think that’s sort of the package that flows through all of them, is that blend of curiosity and creativity. Almost all the admirals have moments of extreme doubt, and fear, and failure. So, I think all of them demonstrate resilience in fairly significant ways. Some more than others, but if you look at other qualities of character, things like humility, balance, honesty, a sense of justice, empathy, eh some of them had those qualities and others did not. And that’s why if I wanted to write a book about character and I was going to pick one admiral I’d probably write about Nimitz, as you can guess.

But in order to illustrate kind of the good, the bad and the ugly, as we talked about with the Pirate Drake, you really do have to pick, I’d say, at least 10 admirals. There are a couple great admirals that didn’t quite make the cut. But bottom line, the closest there is to a universal pair of qualities, I suppose, are creativity and resilience.

Brett McKay: Well, this has been a great conversation. Where can people go to learn more about the book and your work?

Admiral Stavridis: First and foremost I’d say go to my website, which is really easy to remember. It’s just Admiral Stav, the first four letters of my last name. Admiral Stav, S-T-A-V, dot com. And then, secondly, when you do check out the book, in the back is a kind of mini bibliography. It’s not an academic one, but for each of the admirals it lists two or three books with a couple of sentences about each of them that’ll propel you on this voyage of character as you, hopefully, continue to sail true north.

Brett McKay: Well, Admiral James Stavridis, thank you so much for your time. It’s been a pleasure.

Admiral Stavridis: It’s my pleasure Brett. We’ll do it again when my next book comes out, which is going to be a novel, which will be about in about a year. So, stay tuned.

Brett McKay: I’m looking forward to that. My guest today was Admiral Stavridis. His latest book is called Sailing True North. It’s available on and bookstores everywhere. You can find out more information about his work at his website, AdmiralStav, that’s Also, check out our shoe notes at AOM.IS/TrueNorth. And find links to resources where you can delve deeper into this topic.

Well that wraps up another edition of the AOM podcast. Check out our website at where you can find our podcast archives, as well as thousands of articles about different topics, and also check out the Strenuous Life, StrenuousLife.CO. It’s an online platform that we created to help you turn your intentions into actions. We’ve got an enrollment coming up here next week for January. So, StrenuousLife.CO. Get your email on our waiting list. We’ll send out an email when enrollment opens up next week. Hope to see you there on the Strenuous Life. And if you’d like to enjoy ad free episodes of the AOM podcast you can do so at Stitcher Premium. Head over to, sign up, use code “manliness” at checkout to get a month free trial. After you’re signed up, download the Stitcher app on Android or IOS and you can start enjoying ad free episodes of the AOM podcast.

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