Monday, April 25, 2016

Lessons in Leadership: Admiral William Halsey

Field Marshall Bernard Montgomery noted that there is one acid test for leadership:

A leader must have infectious optimism. The final test of a leader is the feeling you have when you leave his presence after a conference. Have you a feeling of uplift and confidence?
By that measure, Admiral William F Halsey qualifies as one of the greatest military leaders in our history. No matter what else he did, the man could inspire confidence and optimism.

On 13 April 1942 the USS Enterprise and her escorts rendezvoused with the USS Hornet carrying the Doolittle raiders. Bill Halsey took to the ship’s loud speaker and announced: “This force is bound for Tokyo.”

And the men on board cheered.

They had seen the smoking ruins of the US battle fleet in Pearl Harbor. They knew that the Japanese Empire was sweeping across Asia and the Pacific. Singapore had fallen. American forces had just surrendered on Bataan.

Now the old man on the bull horn said that this small task force of two fragile carriers and a dozen light escorts was heading right to the center of the empire.

And the sailors and flyers cheered.

Infectious optimism indeed.

The informality of his approach to command and his carelessness worried his senior staff and led to serious errors, but the air crews and the lower deck would do anything for him and probably gave him more than they gave any other commander. He was always on their side, the very model of a sailor’s admiral.
Dan van der Vat, The Pacific Campaign
One does not become a “sailor’s admiral” overnight. Halsey had earned his men’s trust through a hundred gestures and actions.

One day he won the training squadron emblem for stupidity: the Flying Jackass, a large aluminum likeness of a donkey, awarded to anyone who broke a safety regulation. He wore it for two weeks until another student pilot won it away from him. Beut he insisted on keeping that particular badge. When he took command of the Saratoga, he said, he would hang it on the bulkhead of his cabin. Any time he got ready to raise hell with some pilot for an infraction of rules, he was going to look at that Flying Jackass and think twice.

Such tales began the legend of Bill Halsey, the only really flying commander of a carrier, and the true aviators got to love him. When he took over his carrier, he continued to add to bits to the legend. From the Saratoga he went to the Enterprise, one of the new carriers of the fleet, as commander of Carrier Division Two [COMCARDIV Two] and he was promoted to admiral. One day a young officer made an error that delayed the launch of planes. Admiral King was present at the time, and King was a noted disciplinarian (who put an end to the advancement of one naval captain because he ran a cruiser aground in a fog trying to get King back to Washington to make an appointment).

'Who was responsible for the delay?' King demanded by signal, and on the bridge of the Enterprise souls quaked as the message was taken to Admiral Halsey's bridge.

'COMCARDIVE Two', was the reply.

There was no further word from the flagship. But on board the Enterprise the story went from keel to masthead. Admiral Halsey was the sort of officer who protected his men, it said
Edwin Hoyt, Closing the Circle

The US Navy of 1942 still operated under the Prohibition imposed on it by Woodrow Wilson. Halsey had no time for such nonsense when his flyers were fighting and dying. He ordered gallons of bourbon for his flight surgeons should they wish to ‘prescribe’ it for pilots. Not everyone in Washington was happy with his action but as Hoyt notes, “a fighting admiral was not to be gainsaid in 1942, when there were so few of them, and Halsey had his way."

Halsey also shows us that real leaders also make invaluable subordinates:


After Pearl Harbor, when Admiral Nimitz took over command of the Pacific Fleet, he quickly realized that the one carrier admiral he could trust with any mission was Bill Halsey
And this:

Bloch pressed his views on Nimitz, both in conference and in private. In effect, he put an avuncular arm around Nimitz's shoulder and proceeded to tell him how to run the war. Nimitz considered himself fully competent to do the job without such tutelage, but he was at a disadvantage because most of the air officers agreed with Bloch, and Nimitz was not an aviator and had never commanded carriers.

On Wednesday, January 7, the Enterprise force returned to Pearl from patrol and its commander, crusty warrior VAdmn Halsey, came ashore. Halsey's ferocious scowl, which announced to all that he hated the enemy like sin, could not conceal a twinkle in his eye that bespoke his affection for his fellow sailor's, particularly those who served under him.

We lack eyewitness records of what happened next, but we know that Halsey barged into the CinCPac conference that day or the next and cleared the air by sounding off loudly, and no doubt profanely, against the defeatism he found. He then and there permanently endeared hismself to his commander in chief by backing him and the raiding plan to the hilt. Because he was a vice admiral and Commander, Aircraft, Battle Force, and was liked and respected by all, his words carried decisive weight.

E. B Potter, Nimitz

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