Last week’s piece on Innovation and National Competitiveness generated praise from conservative friends and bewilderment from quite a few other readers. The chief complaint was “okay you talked about three policy changes, you acknowledge nothing is going to get past the House of Representatives, so what’s your point?” Stories are always better than argument. So, let me answer with a short book review on Eric Larrabee’s “Commander in Chief: Franklin Roosevelt, His Lieutenants, and Their War”.
If you enjoy reading sharp prose about leadership this is an engaging book. Knowledge of World War II is unnecessary because of the quality of the writing. Larrabee briefly describes the context of Roosevelt’s relationship with each lieutenant and the leadership qualities Roosevelt used with each of them. If you like biography, business, or sports books you will find this book about leadership in life hard to put down.
You also do not need to appreciate or hate the New Deal. Part of the magic of the book is its focus on showing how Roosevelt brought Republicans who hated the New Deal into the backbone of the team that won the war. It is a story about precisely the opposite of what prevails today.
FDR spent World War I as the Assistant Secretary of the Navy and because of his audacity he used his experience to poke his nose into every nook and cranny of the Navy. He even toured near the front lines in World War I. Why was the Assistant Secretary of the Navy in a trench?
One example of the effect of that Rooseveltian tour of duty upon the Navy and in World War II is recounted on page 32,
… while inspecting naval installations in Maine he offered to guide destroyer Flusser through the strait between Campobello and the mainland to the dismay of its commander, Lieutenant William F. Halsey, Jr. “ The fact that a white flannelled yachtsman can sail a catboat out to a buoy and back is no guarantee that he can handle a high-speed destroyer in narrow waters …,” Halsey late wrote. “As Mr. Roosevelt made his first turn, I saw him look aft and check the swing of our stern. My worries were over, he knew his business.”
That young lieutenant became Admiral “Bull” Halsey, the architect of some of the greatest Pacific victories of the war. This is one of an endless series of anecdotes of how FDR met as young men most of the naval commanders of the generation that won World War II. And when the war neared he elevated that talent over superior paper resumes not only in the Navy but in the Army and more generally.
Roosevelt recalled veteran Republican cabinet member Henry Stimson to be Secretary of War. Stimson served loyally under Roosevelt throughout the war, which was not an easy task for Democrats let alone a life-long Republican. People followed Roosevelt because he had foreseen the war before almost anyone else in American politics and because his demands yielded results.
Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz was from the German part of Texas. His immigrant family had created a rich life out of the Texas wilderness. There was nothing New Deal in the Nimitz family. But once again, Roosevelt picked deep into the personnel list and elevated Nimitz to operational command of the Navy’s vast war in the Pacific. Nine days after Pearl Harbor Roosevelt issued an order. “Tell Nimitz to get the hell out to Pearl and stay there til the war is won.” And four years later General McArthur received the Japanese surrender on Nimitz’s battleship.
What this book reminds us is that leadership matters. Roosevelt made a life’s work of meeting the most outstanding members of both parties and empowering them at just the right moment in history. Roosevelt’s leadership had at least three fundamental characteristics missing in the Obama presidency:
1. The ability to pick the right person for the right job. This is the single most important leadership skill;
2. What matters is who can lead and accomplish goals not their party; and
3. Once a great leader has the right lieutenants he pushes them strategically, but leaves the tactics to them.
If President Obama has these skills, it is time he begins to use them to achieve concrete results such as the policies in last week’s post. Whining and show votes are not leadership.
Once you have effective leadership it is amazing how your opponents can rally to the right cause. Larrabee recounts that Nimitz and his family were once sailing up the Potomac as guests on a yacht when the Presidential yacht passed them. The crew and the Nimitz family, except his daughter Anna, turned out to salute FDR. Nimitz went down into the cabin to receive Anna’s reluctance to salute Roosevelt.
“Whether you want to salute Roosevelt is your business,” said her father, “but you are going to salute the President.”
If President Obama wants to accomplish concrete goals in the next year, we need a lot more of the kind of leadership that inspired Nimitz’s devotion to a higher cause than partisanship.
Texas State Fair piece next week.