Leadership Lessons: Pearl Harbor

Leadership Lessons: Pearl Harbor

Pearl Harbor was one of the most devastating and unforeseen military losses sustained by the United States in the history of our military.  The legendary and often misquoted Franklin D. Roosevelt explains it perfectly:

“Infamy Speech” Franklin D. Roosevelt – National Archives Catalog

“A date which will live in infamy — the United States was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan.”  In honor of Pearl Harbor day 2020, the 79th anniversary of the attack, I decided to revive the Leadership Lessons of the Past series to analyze some of the leaders on both sides of this attack and put them in context of what modern leaders in all sectors.

Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto – Marshal Admiral of the Imperial Japanese Navy


Admiral Yamamoto was the officer in charge of Japanese naval and air forces executing the attack on Pearl Harbor, HI.  At the time of the attack, he had served in the Japanese Navy for 37 years, fighting in the Russo-Japanese War and was a chief player in developing the Japanese Navy into the wartime fleet that it became in World War II.  In the years between World War I and II, the Admiral advocated for “gunboat diplomacy,” a strong naval policy that attempts to intimidate or destroy to influence political policy.  This was best shown in the Age of Imperialism when countries negotiating with Western powers would notice a warship or fleet off of their cost during the negotiations.  This was policy was in direct opposition to the aggressive army division of the Japanese military, who wanted a navy geared towards transportation and supporting logistics for land forces.

This opposition to Japan’s army leadership led to many interesting situations that are beyond the bounds of this article.  However, one of the biggest disagreements was his unflinching and staunch opposition to the Rome-Berlin-Tokyo treaty, explaining that it was detrimental to “Japan’s natural interests.”  Even though he was one of the architects of the Pearl Harbor attack, his description of how the war with the United States would progress:

Should hostilities once break out between Japan and the United States, it would not be enough that we take Guam and the Philippines, nor even Hawaii and San Francisco. To make victory certain, we would have to march into Washington and dictate the terms of peace in the White House. I wonder if our politicians [who speak so lightly of a Japanese-American war] have confidence as to the final outcome and are prepared to make the necessary sacrifices.

This quote was spread by the Japanese militarists (minus the last sentence) as a boast that Japan would conquer the United States.  However, the last sentence was meant as a cautionary statement of how much the war could cost the Japanese to pursue.  He was made a more well-known and often considered prophetic statement:

I shall run wile considerably for the first six months or a year, but I have utterly no confidence for the second and third years.

Six months nearly to the date, after conquering territories and islands in Asia and the Pacific, the Japanese Navy suffered a major defeat in the Battle of Midway, tilting the balance of power in the Pacific.

Lesson #1: Evaluating the Competition

The surprise strike on Pearl Harbor was a master stroke of genius if seen from the Japanese Navy’s perspective of shock and awe.  Indeed, Admiral Yamamoto hoped that the strike on Pearl Harbor would cow the American government into seeking an early end to hostilities.  All of the wargame projections the Japanese military had attempted said that they could not hold a stand up fight against the American Navy, therefore sought to deal a crippling blow that would stop American intervention to Japanese expansionism in the West Pacific.

However, the attack meant to intimidate, steeled the American passions to avenge the “sneak attack”.  This galvanized the U.S. public’s determination, officially bringing the United States into World War II only four days following the attack.  When viewing this attack and its impact on the overall strategy of the competition.

Unbeknownst to the Japanese hierarchy, the attack on Pearl Harbor would have not been needed.  Six years earlier, in 1935 the U.S. Navy abandoned any intention of attempting to control the Japanese spread across Asia, determining that it would not be able to fully man a fleet to wartime levels in less than six months.  This kept with War Plan Orange, a series of joint Army and Navy war plans drawn up after World War I to plan for a possible war with Japan.  Indeed, in 1940, the U.S. Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Harold Stark had wrote the Plan Dog memorandum, emphasizing a defensive war in the Pacific, focusing on keeping Japan out of the Eastern Pacific and away from the shipping lanes to Australia.  Moreover, without the push of the Pearl Harbor attack, it is questionable that the United States would have entered the war at all as long as the Japanese continued to only attack the British and Dutch possessions in Asia and the Pacific.

Admiral Yamamoto was correct that the Japanese Navy would not be able to win a sustained war with the United States Navy, however his (and the entire Japanese military’s) assessment of the capabilities and intentions of that navy were grossly incorrect.  What was intended to be an overwhelming win that should have shown the American public the horrors of going to war against Japan, ended up being the reason they wanted to go to war.

The lesson to be learned here is evaluating your competition’s capabilities, intentions, and past actions can be the difference between a winning long-term strategy and a short-term gain, but long-term loss.  When building a strategy, whether it be a business, military, or personal one, understanding and correctly interpreting the obstacles to that strategy can be difficult, however ultimately will determine the success of that strategy.

Lieutenant Lawrence Ruff – Communications Officer, USS Nevada


USS Nevada (BB-36) beached and burning after being hit forward by Japanese bombs and torpedoes. Her pilothouse area is discolored by fires in that vicinity. The harbor tug Hoga (YT-146) is alongside Nevada’s port bow, helping to fight fires on the battleship’s forecastle. Note channel marker buoy against Nevada’s starboard side. Official U.S. Navy Photograph, now in the collections of the U.S. National Archives.

Lieutenant Ruff was a communications officer on the USS Nevada, who was attending Sunday service on the USS Solace when the attack on Pearl Harbor began.  With the bombs and torpedoes already falling Ruff commandeered a launch to get back to the Nevada.  What he found when get got there was an uncoordinated defense where shells meant for the attackers exploding well under the aircraft and anti-aircraft batteries clumsily firing at their targets.

The lieutenant quickly made his way to the navigation bridge, reasoning that with both the commanding and executive officers ashore, the radio central would not be the area in need of assistance.  When he reached the bridge, Ruff found that Chief Sedberry had ordered engineering to prepare to get underway.  It should be noted at this time, the large battleships of the day would take approximately two hours to get the boiler systems ready to steam.  However, the Nevada always kept one boiler steaming as a standard operating procedure, unlike her counterparts.  With Ruff on station, he and Sedberry began preparing the bridge to get underway, identifying a navigable waterway out of the harbor.  Ruff also established communications with Lt. Commander Francis Thomas, the ship’s Command Duty Officer and senior officer onboard in internal control.  Due to the damage already sustained to the Nevada, Thomas agreed with Ruff’s recommendation for Ruff to take command and get the ship underway while Thomas organized the damage control efforts.

Ruff’s decision to take control of the bridge and prepare the sortie was the deciding factor that allowed the ship to leave its berth.  His initiative allowed Thomas to organize the firefighting below decks until he was able to command the ship underway and allowed the ship to eventually getting away from the spreading oil flames of the Arizona between the first and second waves.

Lesson #2:  Initiative, Improvisation, and Leadership Despite Resources

Chief Sedberry’s initiative in making engineering ready to get underway immediately after the attack started, and Lieutenant Ruff’s redirection away from his normal duty station, saved an unknown number of lives.  Their improvisation to their circumstances allowed the large ship to move away from the danger of the spreading fire.  While it did make the Nevada a tempting target to the attackers, it allowed the ship a modicum of defense it did not have stuck by the dock.  Additionally, when navigating the unwieldy ship out of the harbor, three men began to accomplish in 45 minutes what normally took two hours and a tug boat.  If not for additional attacks to the ship, causing it to run aground, they might have been successful despite the unsurmountable odds.

Leaders today should be reminded of the quote from Helmuth von Moltke, commander of the Prussian field marshal:

No strategy survives contact with the enemy.

All the planning in the world cannot account for every circumstance and how you pivot to answer the challenges you could never have planned for are what marks a true strategic leader.  A lesson that I’m sure many are learning one way or another this year.

Polaris Strategies LLC can help you gain insight into your strategy

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