Admirals
– Leadership Variation

Dr M J Kirton

This is a review of the book: Admirals, by Andrew Lambert, Faber and Faber Limited, first published 2008; paperback 2009. It is a history of the British Navy since it became a significant force. As one reads it, you can see the affects of differences of style leadership.

The beginning is the time when the British navy started to become a very powerful international force. This began in Tudor times, especially Queen Elizabeth I’s clash with the Spanish Empire and the defeat of the Spanish Armada. The Spanish were more powerful but adaptively run, relying on drawing alongside and letting “an infantry” force cross over and take the ship. The English found an innovative way to bring about their defeat. They did by running alongside and using cannon fire to sink or cripple the Spanish vessels.

The English navy’s real power was under the next dynasty: the Stewart king, Charles II, taking over from the republican dictator, Oliver Cromwell, in the time when Britain and the American colonies were united. The chapter (3) that I thought you would find very interesting is about the king’s brother, James, Duke of York ( later as King James II) taking over the navy. He had been a successful general under the great French King, Louis XIV, but knew little about the navy. However, he seems to have been very able and a high adaptor. He was given command of the navy and found that he did not get on well with his royal followers but preferred to work with the republican navy officers. The latter were disciplined and the royalists were not. So, as long as the republicans accepted him, he used them to bring discipline into this navy – and made it formidable! He did also learn how to delegate to those who knew more about how to run a ship! James also thoroughly re-organised the entire naval supply system, with the help of the famous diarist, Samuel Pepys!

His weakness, however, was that in battle, he kept such tight control that the needed flexibility in battle was crushed and that lead to defeat.

In the next chapter, we have the history of James’ principle successor, Anson, who managed the navy ever better – he was the first to re-introduce flexibility into navy disciplined tactics without losing the discipline. So one can read this book not just as the shift of command from royalty to republican and back to royalty, or from amateur command to professional command – but from innovative thrust (and failure) to adaptive command (and rigidity) and then to the better management of (problem solving) diversity – in which both styles (and developing capacities) combined to produce an unbeatable force. It could be read as a recommendation to A-I theory!!

And so the book goes on – 10 chapters in all. Perhaps, the best piece of the past history is an understanding of the style success of Admiral Nelson. He was clearly an innovator, but the navy, in general, had adaptive training and discipline (chapter 5). However, Nelson always had meetings to allow all his captains to take part in the discussion of what was to happen next. He also made clear that in the midst of battle, captains would be expected to make their own decisions in accord with the changing circumstances that happen in battle. His general command, in these circumstances was “No one is wrong when he runs alongside an enemy”. This is the management of diversity, adaptive discipline blended with innovative moves.

© M.J. Kirton 2016