What can you learn from command? How about humility?

by Neds Job of the Week
Published on: 05/22/2010
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What can you learn from command?  How about humility?<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office” />


Destroyer Captain: Lessons of a First Command

By Admiral James Stavridis, <?xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:smarttags” />U.S. Navy

Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, Maryland

ISBN 978-1-59114-849-4 / 224 pages / $22.95



Reviewed by Edward Lundquist

Senior Science Advisor

Alion Science and Technology



Admiral Jim Stavridis knows a thing or two about command.  He’s commanded a guided missile destroyer, a destroyer squadron, a battlegroup, and now a unified command.  The lessons he learned in his first command, however, have helped him lead and manage the people and problems of the subsequent commands.  And the biggest lesson of all, he says, is humility.


“This book started as a journal, kept between 1993 and 1995, with no initial intent to publish,” Stavridis says.  “With the perspective of 15 years, I re-read it and thought ‘here is a very honest book about command—both the highs and lows.’”


The lessons he refers to in the subtitle were many, he says, but “Mostly about myself.”


Stavridis doubts there are many new lessons about a profession that stretches back centuries.  There is, he says, “room for a book about commanding a ship in this modern world.”


What he learned while in command of USS Barry (DDG 52) has helped him in later years.  That experience has taught him to keep calm, stay reflective, and to believe in the people around him.  “So often our Sailors will rise to exceed our most optimistic expectations when given the right tools and environment.”


One lesson from his days in command at sea that has stayed with him until the present is how fast the world can change.  “When I think about driving the Barry between Haiti, the Balkans, and the Gulf in two years—and how the geopolitical situation in each place changed dramatically and rapidly—helps me work through similarly paced changes in Latin America and the Caribbean.  The old static situation of the Cold War is long, long gone, and the deconstructed world of today moves at the speed of light.  We need flexibility above all, and I first came to truly understand that in my tour in Barry.”

While skipper of Barry, Stavridis worked with other navies and nations, and these interactions have proven to be instructive to him regarding his approach today with his responsibility for many nations?


“When I look around my world of Central and South America and the Caribbean, I see that same sense of partnership and working shoulder-to-shoulder with our friends and allies as being central to all we do,” he says.  “Our ability to be part of the international team is key to national security in this unfolding 21st century.”


At Southern Command, Stavridis is responsible for men and women from all of the services.  He says the universal lessons of leadership he learned—while in command of Barry—could be applied by military leaders in all services, and even people in industry, academia or public service.


“Everything we do on a ship can be applied throughout all sectors of life,” he says, “when we do it well.  To me, civility, quiet confidence, creativity, teamwork, determination and honesty—qualities that became touchstones of Barry and her crew—are exactly right in every walk of life.”


Above all, Stavridis says, it is helpful to have a sense of humor, and not take yourself to seriously.  “In the end, the world will move on and we need to keep a perspective on the small place in time we occupy.”


Those naval officers looking forward will appreciate a book that recounts an experience they can expect to undertake.  It might be reassuring to know that someone who is acknowledged to be a successful commanding officer had his own share of uncertainty and self-doubts.


“I thought it was neat that someone in such an important position wrote with such deep-seated humility,” said Captain Charles M. Gaouette, who recently commanded the guided missile cruiser USS Bunker Hill (CG 52), and whose article, “What I Learned in Command at Sea” was published in the January 2007 issue of the U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings.  “I enjoyed his self-deprecating humor throughout the book.  The fact that he repeatedly questioned himself in command is very disarming and, in my opinion, is key to success in command.” 


Gaouette found the book to have a Winds of War quality about it, with well-known people coming together under challenging circumstances.  “There is a constant stream of reunions with officers from his days at the Naval Academy and early days as a junior officer.”


Gaouette recommends Destroyer Captain as a terrific read, either for someone unfamiliar with the Navy or for someone who is aspiring to command a ship.  For the uninitiated, it is a baptism of fire of the events and milestones that our crews tackle every day.  And for a future captain, the book is replete with tips on how to do things right—with all the humility that Sailors will appreciate.”






Captain Edward Lundquist, U.S. Navy (Ret.), is a senior science advisor with Alion Science and Technology in Washington, D.C.  He supports the Surface Warfare Directorate on the CNO’s staff.

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