Lex on Leadership

Neptunus Lex wrote about his “youngster” cruise as a Midshipman attending the Naval Academy.  This is the first of two cruises that a Midshipman takes: during the second cruise, your activities are those of an officer…

But during youngster year, you sail as a Sailor. You wear dungarees, chip paint, sweep passageways and stand enlisted watches. You sleep in enlisted berthing, eat in the enlisted mess and attempt to get some sense of the men you are supposed to lead in three year’s time, and the lives they live. ..You are tempted to believe that this work is beneath you. You are a Naval Academy midshipman, the cream of the crop. You are special.


You spend some time in the engineering plant – in a gas turbine ship, an amazingly clean and quiet space. Totally incomprehensible. It resembles nothing at all like the wiring diagrams in your thermodynamics textbooks.

But there’s a 23 year old Sailor who didn’t go to college, never read Thoreau, and who nevertheless understands it all. He patiently tries to teach you how it works. He speaks to you like one would speak to an elderly person in a nursing home, slowly, simply. You feel patronized, and worse: You realize that you do not entirely understand.

You are beginning to learn – not about engineering. But about Sailors.


You’re heading home. Bridge watches now, under the tutelage of 20 year old quartermaster’s mates. Men from small towns that you’ve never hear of, in states you remember dimly from your grade school geography. From farming families, where no one went to college, and no one was expected to. Men who could fix your position to a hundred yards moving at 20 knots across the endless sea using only the stars, a stopwatch and a sextant. Men who could debate the finer points of Strauss and Engels. Men who play classical guitar to an appreciative audience in the 80 man berthing during their time off duty. Who have dreams of their own that they will tell you about, when no one else is listening. Men who would risk their lives to save yours in the midst of a flaming inferno, without hesitating for a moment to reckon the cost, to tally the odds. Men who would die for you, if they had to.

And you begin to realize that you’re not special because of who you are, the grades you got in high school or where you’re going to college. You’re special because of who you’ve been selected to lead, when your time comes.

And that, my friends, is the beginning of wisdom.

Definitely read the whole thing.

There was a general…can’t remember who it was…who remarked that you will can never be a good officer unless you like Soldiers. (And you can’t fake it for long, he added.) I think it is pretty clear that Lex liked Sailors.

One way of evaluating any leader…military, political, business executive..is his attitude toward those he leads or wants to lead.

9 thoughts on “Lex on Leadership”

  1. I love the essay, that it almost makes me feel sorry about how we sent midshipman back to the engine room to get a bottle of blue steam to clean the sonar sphere, almost.

  2. Virtually all that I know about the Navy – at least Naval aviation, I learned from Lex. I will always be grateful to David for posting about him – I just wish I had known him before his accident. That’s my fault.

    One of these things he impressed on me was the fact that a huge carrier is really run by 18-20 year olds – without whom everything would stop.

    Just imagine some 18-20 year old readying a $50 million aircraft for launch – do it wrong and the plane falls in the ocean with a likely loss of life. Where else in the world does someone that young have that kind of responsibility? And they work terrible hours on some of the most dangerous real estate imaginable – the flight deck of a US Navy Carrier.

    Here’s another post of his that addresses the issue:


    And while I am on the subject another post of his that made the rounds around the Internet – the value of the Chief Petty Officers.


    Lex had an appreciation for the enlisted men and I know that made him a wonderful officer.

  3. Interesting. I never went on a cadet cruise, just missing one before coming aboard my first ship.(In the USCG they were desirable, in that they actually went somewhere worth visiting) A boatswain’s mate I worked for ran middie’s on the Eagle for a few years. Can’t imagine them berthing with us in deck, or with the snipes, though. Our berthing area was a combination of Ft.Apache and One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest. Engineering was just as crazy. Only people with security clearances went into the sonar dome, techs and officers. The story about the first class…eh, maybe. In my experience, senior enlisted and officers steered clear. They’d tell you to pipe down, get in your face, but… Vietnam-era morale was extremely poor on many units. Guys in the Navy we’d hang with spoke of a similar atmosphere, Army too. There were officers that were liked, most being OCS.

  4. ” you will can never be a good officer unless you like Soldiers.”

    William T Sherman certainly filled that definition. His troops loved him and he loved them. They called him “Uncle Billy” even to his face. One anecdote in (I think) Liddell Hart’s biography was Sherman taking a nap while his soldiers marched by. Several commented about “Uncle Billy” sleeping while they were marching. He awakened and told them that he had been up all night making plans for what they were going to do next. He didn’t mind the comments.

    On one occasion, the foragers, called “Bummers” even by themselves, encountered some Confederate soldiers as they were roaming the area ahead of the army. They told the Confederates, “We are Uncle Billy’s bummers and you had better git !”

    If bummers were mistreated or killed, he would have the army raze and burn the local buildings. If they were not molested, he avoided property damage.

  5. I am not sure where George Patton would fit in. I don’t think he endeared himself to his troops but they sure respected him. I am told that those who served under him wouldn’t say the unit they were with; they “served under Patton”.

    I saw both great officers and lousy ones. The lousy ones all had one thing in common: One could tell that they didn’t give a “hoot” about those they commanded. The good ones? If ordered you’d follow them off a cliff – because you knew they were right with you.

  6. I keep thinking about this and believe that those whom you oversee have to know that you are there for them. You don’t have to be a buddy – in fact if in a command position that is discouraged – but they have to know that you are there for them.

  7. ” they have to know that you are there for them.”

    There are lots of examples of how leaders behave. My military experience was quite limited in that I was in a medical unit.

    Patton believed that moving fast and being violent saved lives. He was a bit of a martinet but got results. Terry Allen was another tough commander who was highly regarded by his men.

    Bradley relieved him in Sicily for poor behavior by his men off-duty. Allen was sent back to the states but got another division and was in Normandy. His ADC was Teddy Roosevelt Jr who was also relieved in Sicily. They stayed together until Roosevelt died of an MI on D plus 6. He is buried at Normandy. I wish I had know his grave was there.

    Bradley, in my opinion, was a newspaper reporter’s general. They didn’t like Patton but loved Bradley.

    Sherman wanted to arrest all newspaper reporters. He considered them spies. Needless to say, he was not popular until Atlanta fell.

    Halsey was a newspaper reporter’s admiral. Nobody knew who Spruance was.

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