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American Admiralship: The Art of Naval Command

by Edgar F. Puryear Jr., Zenith Press, Minneapolis, Minn., 2008, $24.95.

As the title suggests, this is not a “10 Rules for Becoming a Great Leader” book. In fact, American Admiralship challenges readers to find their own ways to the wisdom between its covers. At 652 pages, there’s plenty of evocative ground to explore.

Puryear quickly establishes his basic proposition: “The most important aspect of this book is its pervading theme: the role of character in successful leadership within the American military.” Then he adds, “Character is a leadership quality that cannot be defined, it must be described.” What follows is an extraordinary anthology of case studies, mostly from senior admirals, that expands on the author’s propositions while providing revealing insights into the Navy leadership’s inner workings and unique culture.

One provocative chapter contrasts controversial four-star admirals Hyman Rickover and Elmo Zumwalt Jr., whose leadership styles were very different and whose unconventional methods generated deep stresses within the Navy. Of conflicts between the two during Zumwalt’s tenure as chief of naval operations, Puryear writes, “Each was so critical of the other that their interpersonal relationships actually reached the point of overt hostility.”

“Selflessness” is the most thought-provoking chapter, focusing on three former Vietnam War POWs: Vice Admiral James Bond Stockdale (a captain when shot down), Rear Admiral Jeremiah Denton Jr. (a commander when captured) and Commander Everett Alvarez Jr. (a lieutenant junior grade when captured). The principles that emerge from this chapter transcend most leadership concepts in America’s prevailing “me” society. Take, for example, Stockdale’s description of his leadership approach when he was senior POW: “Our highest value had to be placed on the support of the man next door. To ignore him was to betray him.…It was ‘Unity over Self.’”

Denton’s words demonstrate how admiralship often provides insights into broader areas. One passage in particular offers a jarring POW perspective of U.S. progress in the war, based on a radical shift in the behavior of his captors following Linebacker II, America’s accelerated bombing campaign:

“Almost every POW of my acquaintance shares my opinion…Linebacker II broke the enemy’s will and won the military war. The victory was insanely handed back to the enemy by the congressional actions, motivated by political catering to the media, academic and public antiwar activities.”

In the end, the book fulfills its promise to provide insight into The Art of Naval Command, engaging the reader with the words of naval leaders who have “walked the walk.”


Originally published in the December 2008 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here