Leadership Insights from “A Day of Infamy”

This past summer I was fortunate to conduct a leadership seminar for a corporate group in Honolulu using the attack on Pearl Harbor our case study.  This encouraged me to do extensive background reading on the tragic events of December 7th 1941 and the days immediately following.  I also visited the sites in Hawaii that were attacked.  The effort reaffirmed my belief that during crises the best (and sometimes the worst….) about leadership in any organization is underscored at such moments of great stress.  Clearly, this consideration is not in any way meant to glorify war, as I have personally seen far too much of war’s horror and destruction.  But it is rather to consider the day of infamy (that is so remembered by nearly every American and others around the world) from the perspective of what can any leader learn from this tragedy that might well resonate today?  As we approach the seventy-second anniversary of the attack there are a large number of important insights that can be taken from this iconic event.  The following are just a few.

Innovation is the key to any organization’s long term success.  Peter Drucker, the famous expert on organizations, once said that “innovation is change that creates a new dimension of performance”.  But a “new idea” in any organization does not become an “innovation” until it can be replicated reliably on a meaningful scale, is fully embraced by the organization, and its advantages exploited.

The US military deployed the first radars on the north side of the island of Oahu in late November 1941.  On the morning of December 7th two young privates were manning the radar at Opana.  They identified the attacking Japanese aircraft on their scope roughly forty minutes before the attack actually began and reported it to the central tracking station at Ft. Shafter.  Despite their insistence an officer on duty told them, “don’t worry about it”.  He had not been trained, likely had little faith in the new devices, and mistakenly believed the sightings were new American bombers scheduled to arrive from the mainland.  In the aftermath of the battle, one of the soldiers commented, “the attack proved the value of this technology.  Up until then the Navy had viewed the radars as toys”.

What is the one thing that leaders must do?  They must DECIDE.  This may seem trite, but that does not make it less true.  Leaders must decide what action their organization is going to take and must further decide when their decision will be executed.  How much time is going to be used considering options?  How much information is needed particularly at difficult moments before a decision is made?  Have we developed subordinates who feel empowered to make timely decisions that may have a dramatic impact upon the entire organization?

On the morning of December 7th half of the commanders of the battleships in Pearl Harbor were ashore.  Lieutenant Commander James Thomas, a Navy Reservist, was the senior officer aboard the USS Nevada.  Prior to the attack a junior officer had ordered a second boiler lit to provide power for the ship.  Consequently, the Nevada was the only battleship able to generate sufficient engine power to get underway once the Japanese attack began.  Thomas quickly surveyed the situation and decided the ship had a better chance of survival if they made a run for the open sea.  As bombs rained down he ordered the Nevada underway and headed toward the harbor entrance.  Japanese aircraft quickly focused on the Nevada, and it was hit by a number of bombs and torpedoes.  As the ship approached the narrow entrance to the harbor Thomas realized that there was a real chance the Nevada might now sink and block the harbor entirely.  He ordered the ship in the shallow water near Hospital Point.  Two members of the Nevada crew were awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor and Thomas received the Navy Cross.

Thomas employed a concept of decision-making called the “OODA Loop — “Observe, Orient, Decide, and Act” that all leaders should consider.  He clearly observed the challenge to his ship and oriented on the key problem of taking actions that provided the best chance for the ship to survive the Japanese onslaught.  He then decided and ordered his crew to get the battleship underway.  When conditions changed dramatically, he reevaluated and made a timely decision that was clearly in the best interest of his ship and the entire force at Pearl Harbor.

Leadership and Teamwork.  The US Navy’s leadership paradigm is:  Ship, Shipmate, Self.  This was clearly illustrated in the initial hour following the Japanese attack.  Each individual’s initial responsibility is to his or her “ship” or their “team”.  Their second responsibility is to their “shipmates” or “teammates”, and there were extraordinary acts of heroism as Marines, soldiers, and sailors cared for each other.  Finally, “self” which implies the responsibility each team member has to not only care for themselves so they can perform well but also live up to the ethical norms of the organization.  Furthermore, they must seek continual improvement so they can be a better member of the team.

Doris Miller was an African American sailor aboard the USS West Virginia.  Miller was the ship’s heavyweight boxing championship but due to his race could only serve as a mess attendant.  He was collecting laundry when the attack began.  Miller immediately began hauling his wounded “shipmates” to safety and saved several lives.  He later carried ship’s injured captain to safety.  Miller then took over a 50-caliber anti-aircraft gun, which he had not been trained to use, and he began to defend his ship by firing at diving Japanese planes.  He is credited with having shot down at least one enemy aircraft before running out of ammunition and being ordered to abandon ship.  Miller was the first African-American to win the Navy Cross, but sadly Doris Miller would not see final victory.  In 1943, Miller’s ship was sunk in the Gilbert Islands, and he was never seen again.

Innovation, decision-making, and teamwork were crucial during the day of infamy.  As we consider this historic event Americans must be honest — the United States suffered one of its greatest defeats on that tragic day.  But we can learn a tremendous amount from the courageous efforts of the Pearl Harbor defenders.  They demonstrated critical leadership traits that were vital on December 7th 1941 and to America’s eventual success in World War II.  They remain critically important to any organization today.