Let information, not ideology, fuel your ideas
The importance of gathering, curating, and debating to adjust strategies on the fly
February’s theme is the role that information plays in shaping our perspectives
In moments of extreme stress, it is easy to act emotionally instead of rationally
Gathering information continually from a wide variety of sources is essential
Even facing the same set of facts, people can draw very different conclusions
Having diverse perspectives provides a balance to put information in context
Be pragmatic, not ideological, to adjust your actions when new information arises
Admiral Nimitz: a calm presence under stress
My wife and I recently toured the National Museum of the Pacific War together. She had visited in the past, but I had not been there. The museum focuses on a central figure, Admiral Chester Nimitz, and tells the American story of World War II in the Pacific, which is often less well-known than the European campaign. A pivotal moment in the war was the appointment of Adm. Nimitz to be the Commander-in-Chief of the Pacific Fleet following the devastating attack at Pearl Harbor in December 1941. Nimitz was initially targeted for the role a year earlier by President Franklin Roosevelt but had turned down the position at that time because there were 50 Navy officers more senior, and he did not want to be seen as “cutting in line” by being promoted from a 2-star directly to a 4-star. Nimitz was unconventional among many senior military officers at the time: he was reserved, rarely got angry, and managed to command respect from all he encountered, from junior enlisted to his superiors in Washington, DC.
In his excellent new biography Nimitz at War noted historian Craig Symonds provides a portrait of the scene in Hawaii once Nimitz arrives to take command. Rather than tear into the senior officers who failed to anticipate the attack, he explicitly forgives his predecessor, Adm. Husband Kimmel, noting that the same outcome could have occurred if Nimitz had previously accepted the command a year earlier. (There is a lively debate today about whether Kimmel was a scapegoat for the attack or dropped the ball.) Rather than dismiss the opinions of Kimmel and his staff, Nimitz carefully assessed each person’s reactions to what happened and what actions the Pacific Fleet should take moving forward. Interestingly, as Symonds lays out, men who played down the possibility of an attack because they underestimated the operational capabilities of Japan had more of an aggressive mindset, seeking retribution against the Japanese quickly. Conversely, men who were more fearful of the strength of the Japanese tended to prefer a defensive posture that focused on preserving the remaining assets of the Pacific Fleet rather than fighting back. In short, depending on the person’s previous stance - whether a successful Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor was possible or not - influenced their next position.
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Assessing information and how people process it
The challenge for Adm. Nimitz as commander of the Pacific Fleet was to chart the right strategy to achieve American objectives to win the war. He was under constant pressure from his boss, Adm. Ernest J. King, who was outspoken and hyper-aggressive. (There was a joke among underlings that the J stood for “Jesus.”) Nimitz had previously led the Bureau of Navigation in Washington, DC, and had mastered the art of managing up and bureaucratic politics. While King initially dismissed Nimitz as a mere “paper pusher” incapable of command in war, Nimitz proved to be a collaborative yet decisive leader over time.
One of Nimitz’s best traits was gathering information and putting it in context while also accepting that there were many “unknowables” that did not cause a delay in his decision-making. Nimitz valued hearing opinions that differed from his own, but he also assessed his leadership team upon arrival to determine which ones were relentlessly positive or negative, aggressive or defensive. Nimitz looked for leaders who were not ideological but practical, those capable of changing their opinions when new information warranted. He valued the counsel of people who were not simply “yes men” but were thoughtful and reflective when contemplating tricky situations. Moreover, there was much less access to information then, and ships conducting operations at sea rarely communicated by radio for fear of giving away their positions. Once Nimitz and his leadership team made a decision, it wasn’t possible to micro-manage it based on early and incomplete information. Instead, Nimitz had to delegate responsibility to the task force and ship commanders to make adjustments as necessary based on what they encountered.
Be decisive under uncertainty but not afraid to change
In the early days following Pearl Harbor, President Roosevelt informed Adm. Nimitz of his “Europe first” strategy for World War II, which meant that as commander of the Pacific Fleet, he would have to make do with less. Given the enormous losses at Pearl Harbor and the lack of an immediate surge in resources to make up for their absence, Nimitz was under pressure to adopt a defensive posture that minimized further losses. At the same time, Nimitz knew that the troops' morale was at an all-time low, and successful acts of aggression would go a long way toward turning the tide of the war. So he sought to identify and plan for actions that he could achieve in the short run, all while keeping the broader objectives of retaking control over the Pacific in mind. Rather than risk direct confrontation at first, Nimitz looked to disrupt Japanese supply lines as part of a vision to isolate their soldiers and focus on direct engagement only when necessary on select islands, all while building back up American naval strength over time.
Nimitz did not wait until the American fleet was back at full force to act aggressively, nor did he relent when initial assertive actions went wrong such as losing the oil tanker USS Neches from a torpedo strike. Instead, Nimitz and his leadership team adjusted their approach over time in recognition of the realities they faced. The Neches incident showed that Japanese torpedos were much more damaging than initially estimated and the importance of preserving oil tankers, whose numbers were even more limited than battleships. Aircraft carriers became more critical as warplanes could be used not just to scout enemy positions and strengths but attack effectively as well. While the decisions led by Nimitz and his team were not perfect, overall, the even-handed approach to processing information and making data-driven decisions was an essential part of the ultimate successes at sea of the U.S. Pacific Fleet.
The lessons for today’s world remain relevant for leaders. As I’ve written in the past, there is a direct connection between the information diet people consume and the stories they create to make sense of the world. In turn, these stories inform their strategies and actions. By seeking out a wide variety of information sources, relying on a trusted team to consider and reflect on the right course of action without pretext, and knowing when to make timely decisions and avoid “analysis paralysis,” you can help develop and refine a successful strategy for your organization. Additionally, when seeking to innovate in war or business, finding a balance between offensive and defensive tactics is vital to maximizing effectiveness over the long run.