SAILING TRUE NORTH by James Stavridis


Ten Admirals and the Voyage of Character
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Principles of leadership drawn from the lives of 10 admirals from ancient Greece to the present.

Exploring self-improvement through the lives of great leaders has become a popular—and often eye-rolling—genre, but this earnest mixture of biography, memoir, and pop psychology makes no outlandish claims, and readers will absorb some significant naval history. Well-read but no scholar, Stavridis (Sea Power: The History and Geopolitics of the World's Oceans, 2017), the former Supreme Allied Commander at NATO and current chairman of the U.S. Naval Institute, has done his research in the works of popular historians. For the most part, the author has chosen his subjects well, and ambitious readers can follow up using his excellent bibliography, which includes works by such noted historians as Jan Morris, Walter Borneman, and James Hornfischer. Stavridis begins with history’s first great sea commander, Themistocles, who led the ancient Greeks to victory over the Persians at Salamis and then fell from favor, ending his life in exile. Stavridis concludes that Themistocles represents a case study in charisma, risk-taking, and overweening arrogance. Perhaps most obscure is 15th-century Chinese Adm. Zheng He, a Muslim eunuch who rose to the top of the imperial hierarchy and led a titanic fleet in several voyages across south Asia as far as Africa. Demonstrating grit and self-reliance, he was “carefully organized, calm of spirit, devoted to his prince, and willing to take risks.” More familiar figures march across the pages, including Francis Drake, Horatio Nelson, John Arbuthnot Fisher, Alfred Thayer Mahan, Chester Nimitz, Hyman Rickover, and Elmo Zumwalt. Stavridis ends with Grace Hopper, whose “vision of the distant future” guided a not-always-enthusiastic Navy into the computer age. In the final chapter, the author summarizes character traits that these impressive figures demonstrated, and few readers will deny that they include creativity, resilience, humility, empathy, decisiveness, and determination.

If these sensible lessons break no new ground, the biographies make good reading.

Pub Date: Oct. 15th, 2019
ISBN: 978-0-525-55993-1
Page count: 336pp
Publisher: Penguin Press
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 15th, 2019