Tales of heroes and villains illuminate deeply held beliefs; they inspire us and provide a common language for developing shared understanding. For millennia, humans have used stories to share history across generations, to entertain each other, and to communicate values and behavioral norms. Memoirs, biographies, and profiles of “great” people also feature prominently across the business and professional realm.
Early studies of leaders and leadership also focused on so-called “great” people. The idea was that if we wanted to know how to be effective or successful, we should start by studying successful people. At first glance, this makes sense.
Or does it?
Using what someone did—even an extraordinary person—as a guide for what you should do is problematic. Stories about “great” people can fall into the trap of hero worship—they can exclude the complexities and multifaceted nature of most people’s character, and they can mistake popularity or fame or accidental success for genius or expertise. That’s why thoughtful people have largely moved on from the “great person” approach, progressing instead to using careful research to distill principles from a wide variety of empirical evidence.
At the same time, stories are central to the human experience and as a source of inspiration. I still often find memoirs and stories about people who led at high levels or navigated adversity interesting—and useful. But they’re useful in a way that takes into account the fraught nature of learning from individual accounts and situations.
Learning about the obstacles or challenges that people faced and somehow overcame renews my sense of what’s possible—for society, for others, for me. Stories can spark ideas about what my approach toward obstacles or challenges might include, provided that I also take into account the similarity or dissimilarity between my context and that of the “great” person. Many stories also contain within them useful moral lessons—examples of how we might be in the world—that are useful across a wide variety of contexts. And having stories to share with others remains an evergreen way to communicate challenges, opportunities, norms, and values.
The U.S. Navy loves its heroes
That brings me to the U.S. Navy, the frustratingly fantastic organization in which I’ve been a member for half my life. Like other branches of the American armed forces—in particular the Army and Marine Corps—the Navy showcases its heroes more than any civilian organization I’ve ever encountered. And it’s not even close.
The Navy immortalizes its heroes through the names of many buildings and ships, oil paintings and photographs on walls, formal training and education courses, and of course, through stories. Arguably the epicenter of such immortalization is the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, where officer candidates live and learn engulfed by such tradition. It’s also the final resting place of numerous prominent naval figures in its cemetery and of American Revolution naval leader John Paul Jones, whose remains have been in the elaborate crypt of the Naval Academy Chapel since 1913.
Myriad books and articles preserve and communicate the stories of these and other Navy heroes. I’ve read only a small fraction of them; there are simply too many for me to digest. Although my knowledge of the details of Navy history and its people certainly pales in comparison with that of some of my peers, I have in recent years become interested in the question: Whom might I consider to be some of my Navy heroes and why?
My three current favorite naval heroes
In chronological order of their Navy retirement dates, here are my three current favorite naval heroes: Rear Admiral Alfred Thayer Mahan (1840-1914), Admiral Elmo R. “Bud” Zumwalt Jr. (1920-2000), and Rear Admiral Grace Hopper (1906-1992). I chose these three due to the unique nature of their contributions and aspects of how they approached challenges; a common thread uniting them is that they thought differently and inspired change.
They’re also a bit peculiar. Two of them (Mahan and Hopper) either never served much at sea or actively avoided it. Zumwalt, known for his bushy eyebrows and relentless energy, had the habit of running two miles every day between 6:10 and 6:24 a.m. while he was Chief of Naval Operations. Apparently that was when he did most of his “thinking about important but non-urgent matters.”
All three, of course, were also imperfect humans like all of us.
Alfred Thayer Mahan
Mahan demonstrated the value in doing deep, intellectual work even when the organization that should be listening to such work may not appreciate it fully at the time. His most well-known book, The Influence of Sea Power upon History, 1660-1783, influenced generations of strategic thought and action related to maritime concerns. Among those influenced by his work was Theodore Roosevelt, who later in his presidency modernized the Navy and greatly expanded the presence of the United States around the world.
Interestingly, Mahan received a scolding performance review earlier in his career that included the line, “it is not the business of naval officers to write books.” Drawing upon his interests and skills as a historian and scholar, though, he ignored that admonition and continued to write. He taught for years at the U.S. Naval War College, and although some of his strategic ideas may not hold the same relevance today as they did in his time, he was undeniably an intellectual force whose effects persist long after his death.
In addition to being a scholar, writer, and teacher; Mahan didn’t fit the mold of most naval officers. He wasn’t particularly charismatic, and he wasn’t a good ship driver. In fact, ships under his command endured a handful of collisions—incidents that would likely greatly impede (or immediately halt) the career progression of any U.S. Navy officer today. Yet he seemed to know his strengths, and he used them extraordinarily well despite the organizational headwinds he faced. For me, Mahan is a reminder of the value of doing the hard work of thinking, articulating, and teaching. Even if such efforts aren’t recognized or appreciated immediately, they are worth it, and they are vital to the thoughtful advancement of any idea, organization, or society.
Elmo Zumwalt Jr.
Whereas Mahan was a maritime scholar who largely eschewed actual service at sea, Zumwalt cut his teeth at sea in some of the most dramatic moments of World War II. He was also much more politically and socially adroit than the often disagreeable Mahan, which likely contributed to his meteoric rise to become the youngest Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) in history at the age of 49. Prior to his role as CNO, he served at the Bureau of Naval Personnel, and it was during this tour of duty that he gained exposure to the massive task of managing the Navy’s thousands of people. It likely also framed his thinking and actions related to the people side of the Navy later when he was CNO.
As CNO, Zumwalt faced personnel challenges and did his best to drive reform. His methods weren’t always the best, as he often drove change through direct, top-down edicts—a method that may have seemed the most rapid but likely didn’t take into account the ongoing process and cultural transformation that characterizes successful organizational change. But he was a reformer nonetheless, and he set his sights on two of the Navy’s most insidious problems: racism and sexism. He did so with courage and by listening to and including numerous junior voices as he created policy. Former North Atlantic Treaty Organization Supreme Allied Commander and retired Admiral James Stavridis compared Zumwalt’s reform efforts to Vatican II in the Roman Catholic Church, stating that they “resemble Vatican II [not only] in their scope and ambition, they also caused similar institutional controversy and their legacy remains similarly seminal but unsettled today.”
Zumwalt epitomized bold decision-making, energy, and originality in his approach toward improving the Navy. He didn’t get everything right, but he certainly didn’t shy away from messy challenges. As someone who studies organizations, I can empathize with the extraordinary obstacles that Zumwalt must have faced—culturally, organizationally, politically, and tactically. It seems clear that he acted upon what he thought was best despite those obstacles, and his legacy is a reminder of the value in radical thought and action even within the most entrenched bureaucracies.
At the school that my children attend, second graders have an event in which they are required to learn about a prominent person for “wax museum day.” They dress up to resemble the character and memorize a speech about the person, and then parents would walk around the group of children and hear their speeches. Among the array of 7 and 8-year-old children dressed up like various historical characters, sports personalities, and celebrities; my eldest daughter stood out, dressed up like a little Navy rear admiral in a makeshift service dress blue uniform, complete with a name tag that read, “Hopper.”
“Amazing Grace” Hopper’s story, like those of Mahan and Zumwalt, is extraordinary. She joined the Navy in her thirties despite difficulties with the physical requirements: She weighed only 105 pounds, 15 pounds shy of the Navy’s minimum requirement. She held a Ph.D. in mathematics from Yale University, and she joined the Navy out of a sense of service following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. Over the course of her career that included stints in industry and the Navy Reserve, she became a visionary in the field of computer science and pioneer in computer programming, leading to the development of COBOL (an acronym for COmmon Business-Oriented Language). She argued for the use of computers in ships, and the Navy continued to rely upon her expertise and leadership for various research, development, and technical implementation initiatives until her retirement in 1986 at the age of 79.
Hopper’s legacy is one of serious intellectualism, curiosity, and mentorship. Her enthusiasm and vision inspired thousands, and her ideas and work led to numerous important technological advancements that endure to this day. She wasn’t afraid to question assumptions, nor was she afraid to tell those above her that they were wrong. She lived a life of character and devotion to duty, and she serves as an example of the power of deep expertise and staying aligned with one’s values. In an era in which expertise can too often be ignored or even scorned, Hopper reminds us of the value of using one’s expertise to craft the future despite the obstacles or resistance in the way.
Great people do matter, and we can learn from their stories
Despite the challenges and fraught nature of using individual stories of “great” people as sources for our learning, value does exist in exploring the stories and lives of those who achieved greatly. And without falling into the trap of hero worship, Alfred Thayer Mahan, Elmo Zumwalt Jr., and Grace Hopper stand as extraordinary examples of different ways to approach obstacles without compromising one’s vision. They held fast to their values despite the opposition, making a positive difference that stands the test of time.
References and for further reading
Kent, M. L. (2015). The power of storytelling in public relations: Introducing the 20 master plots. Public Relations Review, 41(4), 480–489.
Paret, P., Craig, G. A., & Gilbert, F. (Eds.). (1986). Makers of modern strategy: From Machiavelli to the nuclear age. Princeton University Press.
Stavridis, J. (2019). Sailing true north: Ten admirals and the voyage of character. Penguin Press.
Zumwalt, E. R. (1976). On watch: A memoir. Quadrangle/New York Times Book Co.
For more details about how to manage your subscription including e-mails and notifications, click here.