Alec Fraser is a retired US Navy captain who commanded two US missile ships. After a 25-year career in the Navy, he served as president of Turner Properties, a division of Turner Broadcasting. His book, Damn the Torpedoes! -- Applying the Navy’s Leadership Principles to Business, published in 2016 by the Naval Institute Press, describes four principles of Navy leadership and shows through his own experiences “afloat and ashore” how they are directly applicable to the world of business. The writing is crisp, clear, and concise, as one might expect from a ship’s captain and a graduate of USN Academy at Annapolis. It is also entertaining, and it presents clear and practical leadership lessons from a perspective not often seen in books and articles on leadership.
For plebes – first-year students – at Annapolis, Fraser tells us, only four responses are allowed to any order or question. Those four responses are “Yes sir or No sir,” “Aye-aye, sir,” “No excuse, sir,” and “I’ll find out, sir.” And each one, he says, embodies a principle of leadership that has served the Navy and its captains and crews throughout its history. To provide some perspective on these principles of leadership, the first chapter of Damn the Torpedoes! offers a glimpse into the daily life of a Navy ship captain. As he leads you through his routine aboard a missile cruiser, he shows how various leadership strategies and tactics are applied on a daily basis.
Under Fraser’s command, the crew of the missile cruiser USS Cape St. George won the Navy’s USS Arizona Memorial Award for being “the most combat-ready surface ship in the entire US Navy.” From that, alone, one might conclude that Fraser knows something about leadership. He opens the book by describing an incident in which an unidentified aircraft – a “bogey” – approaches his ship. Captain and crew handle the incident calmly, methodically, and effectively. Fraser notes that the four principles of naval leadership helped him respond to the incident knowing that his crew was well-trained and well-prepared, and that members of his crew also applied those principles to handle what might have been a life-or-death situation.
Each of the four Annapolis responses is covered in a single chapter. The first is “No excuse, sir.” The principle embodied in “No excuse” is total accountability, and for Fraser, that means personal accountability. Accepting total accountability, he says, forces one to be proactive, disciplines thinking, and creates honesty. The intense accountability imposed on ship captains means they must “do everything possible to make sure mistakes are not made.” It means thinking about what could go wrong and ensuring that the crew is trained to meet any foreseeable challenge. “No excuse, sir” also forces a ship captain to adopt a personal code of ethics and to be fair, consistent, and honest in all of his or her dealings with the crew – a universal principle of good leadership.
“Men will not long trust leaders who feel themselves beyond accountability for what they do,” Fraser writes. “And when men lose confidence and trust in those who lead, order disintegrates into chaos and purposeful ships into floating derelicts.”
“I’ll find out, sir” embodies the principle of thinking and learning leadership. In Fraser’s words, it means “thinking ahead and learning what we need to know, knowing what homework we need to do, and thinking about what we need to do before we do it.” And while this “finding out” leadership means looking ahead, it also means finding out about the past: knowing what mistakes have happened in the past, not throwing traditions away too quickly, and understanding how our previous actions affect where we are today and where we are going.
“Yes, sir/No, sir” is about ethical leadership, about honest answers to questions. It is a “very real test of honesty, character, and the degree of trust one can place on the person answering the question,” Fraser writes. “In short, how we answer a question tells us a lot about our character.” One builds trust by being honest, fair, and consistent, by knowing one’s own job and understanding the jobs of others, and by showing genuine concern for the physical and mental wellbeing of every member of the crew or of the company.
“Captains know the success and safety of the ship depends on the crew’s trusting the captain and the captain’s trusting the crew,” says Fraser. “The same is true in business, too.”
In naval parlance, “Aye, aye, sir” means “yes,” but, as Fraser explains, it means more than that. “It means ‘yes’ with enthusiasm and an implicit indication that an order will be carried to the best of the sailor’s ability.” So, at its root, “aye, aye, sir” is about motivation and pride in one’s work, which in Fraser’s view comes from being part of a well-functioning team and having the knowledge and training to do the best possible job. And it comes from a leader who accepts total accountability for the preparedness and performance of every member of the team.
In each chapter, Fraser draws on his on experiences at sea and on shore to present practical, common-sense ways of developing and practicing a leadership style that embodies these principles. And in the final chapter, he draws it all together in clear, concise examples the from “the captain’s chair” and “the corner office.”
While Fraser’s perspective is that of ship’s captain and corporate exec, throughout the book he makes it clear that leadership exists and is necessary at all levels of a company or crew, and he offers practical strategies that can be applied by seasoned execs and first hires. Implicit in his book is the fact that effective leadership is a relationship between leader and follower that includes mutual trust and support, and genuine concern for each other’s wellbeing.
Damn the Torpedoes! offers a shipload of insights and practical advice and an interesting and entertaining narrative in its 88 pages. It is a book well and rereading.
Damn the Torpedoes! -- Applying the Navy’s Leadership Principles to Business, by Capt. Alec Fraser, USN (Ret.) is available from various booksellers, in paperback or as an e-book.
--David Sakrison, Executive Director Wisconsin Leadership Institute