Monday, February 18, 2008

Leadership vs Luck: a Lesson from Midway

How many times have you heard the line ‘It’s better to be lucky than be good?’ Well, it’s nonsense. This thought occurred to me today as I read an article about the Battle of Midway.

For those of you not up on your Navy history, the Battle of Midway was fought from 04 to 06 June, 1942 over and north of the island of Midway, more than 1000 miles west north west of Hawaii. During the course of the battle US Navy aircraft, flying off of three carriers, sank four Japanese aircraft carriers while losing only one carrier (the USS Yorktown). All four of the Japanese carriers had participated in the attack on Pearl Harbor on 7 December. The Japanese losses, in material and in men, particularly the pilots and aircrew, were never to be made up and the battle is rightly considered one of the turning points of World War II and one of the great naval battles of history.

What has that got to do with luck? Well, it is common to consider that the US was remarkably lucky in the sequence of events that led to the successful attacks on the Japanese carriers. In fact, three of the Japanese carriers were destroyed in a matter of less than an hour in what has been called a ‘miracle.’ Writers are fond of pointing to one unusual event after another and remarking that if anything had gone wrong, if the ‘breaks’ hadn’t gone our way at just the right moment, the US might have lost.


The US won that battle because of superior leadership. Period. Start with Admiral Nimitz recognizing both the superiority of his intelligence and the logic, as seen by Japanese planners, of attacking Midway (over concerns and objections from Washington); Halsey’s selection of Spruance to replace him as commander of the carrier strike force while Halsey was in the hospital; Spruance’s careful planning and communication to his staff and subordinate commanders; and finish with the clear understanding by every officer and sailor of the importance of the mission and a clear understanding of their individual role in the mission.

The men of the torpedo bombers didn’t press their attack (and die in great numbers) because they were (un)lucky, they pressed their attack because they understood what needed to be done and what would happen if they failed. When the wing commanders pressed their search for the carriers even as they approached the limits of their range due to fuel, they understood their mission and the goals, and the cost of not succeeding. There are, in fact, hundreds of points throughout the battle that individuals pressed ahead and ‘luckily’ succeeded.

But luck had nothing to do with it. The success rested with a clear understanding of the mission of the task force, beginning with the overall commander – Admiral Nimitz – and working all the way down to the individual sailors and Marines and soldiers on the ships and on the islands.

Success also depended upon the intellect of those involved: whether the intellect of Joe Rochefort and Ed Layton who figured out the Japanese plan, or of Spruance and his (and Halsey’s) staff that developed a working plan to find and attack the Japanese fleet, and to the intellect of the aircrew that developed and executed the actual attacks.

US success also rested on the failure of the Japanese plan, which violated basic principals (splitting forces) and was short on the basics of reconnaissance, sound intelligence and operational security, and was arguably too complex.

Success rested on the communication of the mission to the crews of these ships. Communication is more than talk; from Nimitz to Spruance to the squadron commanders to the average sailor there was a deep and thorough understanding of the importance of what was unfolding around them and the reality of their mission. They didn’t simply know what the mission was; the communication from the chain of command was enough to make them all believers: they heard, they understood, they believed and they committed to it.

Success depended on moral courage: Spruance understood the potential risks and weighed them against the goals and pressed on, despite some great costs, including the loss of an aircraft carrier, a destroyer, 132 aircraft and 307 men. When the mission was successfully executed he withdrew, without risking his forces and without grabbing for greater glory.

And finally, success depended on decision-making, again from the admirals down to the pilots and aircrew, who continued to make hard decisions, based on their understanding of the mission and the need to accept risk.

This is not to say that the Japanese leadership – Admiral Yamamoto and Admiral Nagumo – were not superb leaders; they were. But they were ‘out-led’ by Nimitz and Spruance.

The point here is that it was the fundamentals of leadership: clarity of vision, intellect, communication, moral courage, decision-making; evident in Nimitz and his key officers, that was the real reason for the success at Midway. It is the real reason for success in any endeavor – military, political, public or private.

Again, luck had nothing to do with it. It never does.


At February 21, 2008 at 12:26 PM , Anonymous Ronald W. Russell said...

The writer demonstrates a sound knowledge of the Battle of Midway, and his thesis might resonate well with many who prefer to believe that American valor and expertise prevailed there to the total exclusion of the fog of war and the unpredictable chaos of combat. But like every author or historian who has ever attempted an analysis of the battle (including me), some or all of his argument is, well, arguable.

Comment on this topic could easily extend to several thousand words, but in keeping with the nature of this forum, I’ll only cite one of several elements of the battle that few informed analysts would attribute to anything beyond sheer providence. As the writer mentions, the “wing commander” (actually, the USS Enterprise air group commander), Lieutenant Commander C. Wade McClusky, had led his two dive bomber squadrons to the point of no return in a vain search for the enemy carriers. He turned his flight about and by chance spotted a Japanese destroyer headed back to its fleet after a lengthy pursuit of a U.S. submarine. McClusky correctly deduced that the ship could lead him to his quarry. He altered course accordingly, and thereby was able to deliver a killing blow to the enemy that otherwise would not have happened; at least not then.

Thus, it was an out-of-position Japanese destroyer that McClusky just happened to encounter after giving up his intended search course that, as much as anything, led to what other writers have called the Incredible Victory, the Miracle at Midway. Maybe the incredible miracle would have happened anyway, and maybe not; we’ll never know. But an absolute statement that luck played no part in what actually happened does not hold up under a detailed examination of all of the battle’s convoluted circumstances.


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