Conquering Today’s Adversity by following Admiral Nelson’s Example

Admiral Lord Nelson (Source: Royal Museums Greenwich).

History remembers October 21st 1805 not only as Admiral Horatio Nelson’s last day on Earth, but also as the day he won the naval battle off Gibraltar (Cape Trafalgar), ensuring his name would forever live in posterity, history books and in our collective memory. A simple stroll on Trafalgar Square in London or a quick visit in the crypt of St. Paul’s Cathedral where he lies for eternity highlight how much this victory and the man who made it possible mean to British consciousness.

Standing at most five and a half feet and afflicted with seasickness and other illnesses, Horatio Nelson was hardly a giant among men […].

Admiral (ret.) James Stavridis

During last spring’s confinement, I obtained and reviewed a copy of one of the best books I read this year Sailing True North: Ten Admirals and the Voyage of Character (The Penguin Press) by Admiral (ret.) James Stavridis. This motivating author devoted one of his chapters to the famous son of Albion.

“Born weak and sickly, Horatio Nelson was hardly a giant among men […] he stood at most five and a half feet in his stockings. Slight of built, and eventually missing both an arm and an eye lost in combat, he was also afflicted with seasickness and other illnesses on and off throughout his life.” He furthermore suffered from a boyhood insecurity complex that made him seek and revel in public recognition. Traits that would certainly be mocked by the likes of Donald Trump where he be alive today.

Whatever physical impediment he suffered from was vastly compensated by his character. To that effect, the former Supreme Allied Commander of NATO reminds us that the famous sea warlord was an adept team-builder who also knew how to take care of his men, “[…] ensuring that his sailors received the best possible treatment.”

How can this role model of the past inspire us today?

Seasonal depression is upon us as the days grow shorter, influenza is about to rear its ugly head and we are in the midst of a worldwide and deadly pandemic. Much to be depressed about and wither in self-pity. But we must not. Despite his condition and preconditions, Horatio Nelson was never one to cower or shy away from his duties. Were he alive today, he would certainly be one of the staunchest fighters against the current somber context, displaying his values of determination, discipline and goodwill unto others. We can do the same today by wearing a mask, keeping our distances, helping local foodbanks, getting in touch with the elderly just to name a few examples.

It is not at all difficult to imagine Admiral Nelson wearing a mask himself and caring for people around him, as any true leader should, because he did in his times. “He worked hard to make to make sure that food was fresh [for his sailors], water plentiful and unpolluted, and each ship had a competent surgeon.”  

Despite his handicaps, Nelson trusted his judgment to achieve his goal. At the battle of Copenhagen, in 1801, “[…] he famously deliberately pressed a telescope to the eye that had been blinded earlier in his career, thereby ignoring the signals of his superior, and ended up winning an important victory over the Danes. The phrase “turning a blind eye” was reportedly inspired by the incident.”

A powerful testimony that our liabilities can be pivoted to become our greatest assets.

Today, more than ever, the victor of Cape Trafalgar – who clipped Napoleon’s sails and guaranteed Britain’s safety – has a lot to teach us. And we would all be well advised to learn from his school of character.

Want to read more about inspiring figures like Horatio Nelson who rode the waves of adversity and led the ships home safely? I strongly suggest you grab a copy of Admiral Stavridis’ excellent book.

Trust me, you won’t regret it.

________

Admiral James Stavridis, Sailing True North: Ten Admirals and the Voyage of Character, New York, The Penguin Press, 2019,336 pages.

A new Cold War with China seems inevitable

AdmiralJamesStavridis_UNDispatch
Retired four-star Navy Admiral and acclaimed author James Stavridis (Source: UN Dispatch)

(version française)

Retired Four-Star Admiral James Stavridis served as the 16th NATO Supreme Allied Commander – a function once occupied by the legendary General Dwight D. Eisenhower. In 2016, it was reported that he was vetted as a potential running mate for Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. He recently published an excellent book Sailing True North: Ten Admirals and the Voyage of Character which I recently had the privilege – and tremendous pleasure – to review here on this blog.

Having always been attached to the Fourth of July celebrations because of my deep admiration for the United States, it was my intention of publishing a special interview for the occasion. Admiral Stavridis generously accepted to answer my questions and I’m profoundly grateful.

There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that this book would be an excellent holiday read. Happy Fourth of July to all my American friends!

Here is the content of this insightful interview.

We are headed into a new Cold War with China. That seems inevitable now, but we need a strategy to avoid it turning into a shooting war. 

SailingTrueNorthIn Sailing True North, one of my favorite chapter (with the one devoted to Nelson) is the one about Zheng He. What do you think of the current tense situation with China and how do you think we should deal with that?

We are headed into a new Cold War with China. That seems inevitable now, but we need a strategy to avoid it turning into a shooting war. That will require a mix of diplomacy, military deterrence, tech savvy, economic tools (both in competition with China and in encouraging other nations to avoid Chinese “debt traps”). In essence, we should confront China where we must (cyber, trade, tariffs, their claims of “owning” the South China Sea) but cooperate where we can (environment, pandemics, arctic trade routes).  It will be a difficult and at times a dangerous passage. My next book, In Face, out in March 2021, is a novel about … a war with China! It is a cautionary tale, and let’s hope we don’t find it turning from fiction to fact before our eyes. Here’s a link to the Amazon page.

In the book, there are several references to religion, one to the Conclave, the other to John XXIII and Thomas Aquinas. I might be wrong, but I assume you are a Catholic and that faith seems to have had a significant impact on your journey. Am I wrong? Would you say that faith might also be an important buoy on the voyage of character?

I’m Greek Orthodox, and yes faith is vital for me personally – and for many others. Continue reading “A new Cold War with China seems inevitable”

Sailing True North: A character-building guide in these troubled times

SailingTrueNorthSea Power has always fascinated me. I will forever cherish the memories of walking in the footsteps of Admiral Chester Nimitz in Pearl Harbor and Admiral Horatio Nelson at Gibraltar. Back in 2011, I spent a night on the Rock and had trouble sleeping. Heat certainly had something to do with it, but I was also pondering how the British legend spent his days here, defending the interests of King and Country at the entrance of the Mediterranean Sea. I like to think that I might have crossed his spirit while walking in the beautiful streets of this British Overseas Territory.

These men and women who ruled the waves were gifted with exceptional and inspirational values. And I’m very grateful to retired Admiral James Stavridis for writing Sailing True North: Ten Admirals and the Voyage of Character, where he details how these larger than life figures not only mastered what are certainly some of the most demanding jobs in the world, but also their character in front of adversity, whether it is the threat of invasion, war, bureaucracy, sexism or racism just to quote these examples. The best lessons are seldom learnt in easy circumstances.

Naturally, I will not talk about each of the fascinating personas that are presented between the covers, but I will write a few words about my Top 3.

Continue reading “Sailing True North: A character-building guide in these troubled times”

Riding with Napoleon

AndrewRobertsLeadership

In April 2013, I made a point to be in London for Lady Thatcher’s funeral, on my way back to Canada from Rome. Throughout my youth, the former Prime Minister of Great Britain had always been one of my favorite leaders. It was therefore an honor to stand on the street and see her casket pass in front of me on a morning of reverence.

Just a few days ago, I finished reading Andrew Robert’s last book, Leadership in War: Essential Lessons from those who made history and, to my great delight, the 9th leader about whom he writes is Margaret Thatcher (the preceding 8 are Napoleon Bonaparte, Horatio Nelson, Winston Churchill, Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, George C. Marshall, Charles de Gaulle and Dwight D. Eisenhower). I was pleasantly surprised. After all, if the Iron Lady doesn’t deserve a place in such a book, who does?

Thinking about leaders who left an indelible mark in military leadership makes one wonder how did they get there in history? Andrew Robert answers this question when he writes that: “Except through heredity, one does not become a war leader in the first place unless one has a strong personality.”

While it is easy to think and write about the qualities and strengths of great figures of history, it is no less important and vital to understand that, like us, they are humans. The first challenge they must meet is failure. For the road to success if filled with obstacles, but, as Winston Churchill would say, “sometimes, when she scowls most spitefully, [goddess Fortune] is preparing her most dazzling gifts.” Furthermore, you can’t please everyone. I found it almost unbelievable to read that “Although eight admirals, all of them in tears, carried his [Admiral Nelson’s] coffin, such was his controversial status in the Admiralty because of his ceaseless self-promotion and occasional refusal to obey orders that eighteen other admirals refused to attend.” How can anyone dare refuse attending the victor of Trafalgar’s funeral? Statesmen also need to cope with ungratefulness – like those dealing with Stalin and Charles de Gaulle learnt. Finally, you can’t afford modesty. After all, most of these leaders understood “[…] that if their reputations could help conquer, and thus save the lives of their men, who were they to be modest?” Hence, the myth created by de Gaulle to safeguard France’s self-respect during World War II.

But, more than anything, the leaders perform better when they’re profoundly humane. Those who know me are aware of my deep admiration for Churchill, but my favorite chapter is the one Andrew Roberts wrote about Napoleon. I loved to read about the Emperor’s obsession with his men’s boots (after all, his army covered lots of territory by foot), the fact that “he always made sure that wine from his own table was given to the sentries outside his door”, the fact that Napoleon didn’t hesitate to take his own medal of the Légion d’honneur to present it to a deserving soldier or having the feeling that you are observing the Emperor’s “superb filing system” while riding in his busy carriage moving across Europe on bumpy roads. I never was a big fan of the man derisively called the “God of War” by Clausewitz, but Andrew Roberts deserves the credit for turning the ship of my fascination in his direction.

Tomorrow, January 27th, will mark the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, let me say a few words about Margaret Thatcher again. Before picking up Leadership in War, I was totally unaware of her profound philo-Semitism – a disposition I share with her. It was also fascinating to read that “Churchill […] was theologically a lot closer to Judaism than to the Anglican Church into which he was born.” But I digress. Thatcher learnt from her father “[…] the superiority of decisive practical action over mere hand-wringing and vapid moralizing, of the kind that all too many appeasers – in the 1930s and since – have been guilty.” As the metastases of the antisemitic cancer are spreading throughout the world, men and women of goodwill who seek to fight this disease will have to take inspiration from Margaret Thatcher to wage this vital battle. But that’s another story for another post.

I’m writing it for the first time on this blog, but I have been saying it for years. Few authors compare to Andrew Roberts. He dips his pen in the most eloquent ink to bring to life figures who have heaps of lessons to teach us (sometimes about values not to espouse like in the case of Hitler or Stalin).

If there was one leader about whom I would love to know what Andrew Roberts has to say, it would be Moshe Dayan. He mentions him on a few occasions in the book. Just enough to tease, but who knows? We might see something published about the famous Israeli warlord by the author in the future.

Leadership in War is an essential addition on the bookshelves of any leadership enthusiast, whether in the business world, in politics or in the ranks of the military.

239 pages of exquisite intellectual pleasure.

_____________________________________________

Andrew Roberts, Leadership in War: Essential Lessons from those who made history, New York, Viking, 2019, 256 pages.

I would like to express my heartfelt gratitude to the fantastic Sharon Gill at Penguin Random House Canada for helping me with a review copy of this excellent book.