A quiet warrior and thoughtful leader

CEO of the Actuaries Institute, David Bell reflects on the leadership traits and personal style of Admiral Raymond Spruance in the Second World War, to draw out some insights for leaders today.

In the pantheon of senior Allied World War 2 military and naval leaders, one person has always stood out to me as being in a class of his own.  Admiral Raymond A. Spruance, a four star admiral in the United States Navy, was in charge of key elements of the US fleet, at some of the most important battles in the Pacific War with Japan between 1941 to 1945. 

The Battle of Midway

It was the Battle of Midway in 1942, some 2,000 km west of the might US navy base in Hawaii, Pearl Harbor, where Spruance helped turn the tide of the war in the Pacific with his superb admiralship.

It was an inflection point in the war, as historians like to say. What is hard to imagine now, is the consequences of failure, which could have been catastrophic for the Allies; at the very least extending the war by some time with Japan. In fact, rather than luring the US forces into a trap to defend their Pacific outpost, it was the US Navy that turned the tables on the Japanese.

Admiral Raymond Spruance

The Imperial Japanese Navy was forced to turn tail and lick its wounds. Four of its key and irreplaceable assets (aircraft carriers) were sunk, along with other fighting vessels and combat aircraft.  Never again would the Japanese Navy have the upper hand against the Americans – the tide had turned.

“Spruance kept his head when the initial US attack by his torpedo bombers failed catastrophically… he understood the big picture, and remained faithful to his plan.”

Reflecting on the battle of Midway, four things stand out for me in terms of Spruance’s conduct.  Firstly, and perhaps most remarkably, Spruance, an admiral from a completely different professional discipline (cruiser warfare), stood in at the last moment to lead the US aircraft carrier fleet (he replaced the aggressive Admiral Halsey who had a chronic skin condition).

He was completely unruffled by the tremendous burden that had been placed on him – charged as he was with leading the last of the key US naval assets in the Pacific, against a superior Japanese navy. 

Secondly, Spruance devised a clever plan to outwit his Japanese counterparts – he ambushed and surprised his flat-footed enemy – who were attempting to do the same to him.  Thirdly, Spruance kept his head when the initial US attack by his torpedo bombers failed catastrophically (they were all but wiped out).  Lesser men might have called it quits, but he persisted with his second and subsequent waves of dive bombers and prevailed.  Spruance understood the big picture, and remained faithful to his plan.

Finally, Spruance resisted the temptation to pursue the retreating Japanese fleet (for which some roundly criticised him) reasoning that he had achieved his mission, and not wishing to expose the small group of aircraft carriers – America’s key asset in the Pacific – that he had been entrusted with.

“leadership traits are quite often timeless, and apply across different industries, organisations and professions.”

Spruance wasn’t just a one-card trick.  He led the mighty US Fifth Fleet throughout the Pacific War, inflicting massive defeats upon the Japanese at the Battle of the Philippine where the US Navy broke the back of the enemy sinking 3 aircraft carriers and destroying 600 combat aircraft. He was also present at the closing stages of the war during the grim and desperate fight for Iwo Jim and Okinawa.

His personal style

For someone who achieved so much, and was widely regarded as a very successful leader in a martial organisation (WW2 US Navy) full of thrusting and ambitious men, Spruance was remarkable exception to the norm in many ways. 

USS Yorktown at Pearl Harbour days before the battle
USS Yorktown at Pearl Harbour

He was a man of simple tastes who kept very much to himself, his family and his closest circle of friends.  He was honest and self-effacing in his own appraisal of his remarkable achievements. 

He sole boast was that he considered himself a “good judge of men” but added (modestly) that this was the key to his success.  He also claimed to be lazy and never did things that others could do for him.  Even more curious was his self-assessment about his intellect where he is supposed to have said: “Some people believe that when I am quiet that I am thinking some deep and important thoughts, when the fact is that I am thinking nothing at all.  My mind is a blank.”

“Being a leader is easy in the good times; being a leader in the tough times takes character and resolution.” 

At the same time, however, he was a meticulous planner, and left little to chance.  He also possessed self belief in bucketloads, not in an arrogant way, but in a manner that inspired loyalty and belief in those who followed him.

An easy summary to make of Spruance was that he was an ‘admiral’s admiral’.  This was in strong contrast to his peer senior admiral, who lead the same US fleet in rotation with Spruance, Admiral “Bull” Halsey, who was regarded as a ‘sailor’s admiral’.

Does Spruance’s style translate today?

Are there lessons that can be learnt from Spruance’s leadership style, and which are applicable today?  I think the answer is yes – leadership traits are quite often timeless, and apply across different industries, organisations and professions.

First and foremost, Spruance was able to keep his head and make clear and correct decisions in a pressurised environment almost impossible for us to imagine. Being a leader is easy in the good times; being a leader in the tough times takes character and resolution.  Spruance was effectively betting (albeit a calculated punt) the short-term future of America’s war effort on the Pacific on an ambitious plan to lure the numerically superior Japanese fleet to its destruction.

“It’s also important to remember that the best leaders don’t often fit the mould of what we think a typical leader should be like.”

Spruance’s humble and self effacing personality was not relevant in the context of the skills and temperament he brought to the task at hand.  It’s interesting to speculate whether the man he replaced at Midway, the aggressive and assertive Halsey, and a highly effective leader himself, would have had the subtlety of purpose to make the same decisions that Spruance did.  Spruance appealed to those he led because he kept on making the right decisions.

Spruance also had the ‘X factor’ that leaders often have – he could see things that others couldn’t.  In this case he had the insight and most importantly the courage to back his ideas and change the status of the US fleet at Midway from being the hunted to being the hunter.

Like many other great leaders, Spruance had a strong reputation for backing his subordinates with the obvious benefits of building confidence and better performance. He reinforced his quiet brilliance with in-depth planning and attention to detail. 

Two interesting postscripts (well perhaps one)

By the end of WW2 four US admirals were promoted to ‘five-star’ status  – Fleet Admiral – an honour typically awarded during times of major conflict.  Spruance just missed out on this signal honour, something he was less concerned about than the many people who admired him. In latter years there have been attempts to have him promoted but all of these have failed.

I have attempted to recognise Spruance by naming my pet Jack Russell ‘Raymond’ after the great admiral – he carries the name with a complete lack of pride and awareness of his human namesake – something Spruance himself might have appreciated.

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