An Admiral in the Storm: Stavridis on Leadership and Civility


James Stavridis, The Accidental Admiral: A Sailor Takes Command at NATO (U.S. Naval Institute Press, 2014)


When General Dwight D. Eisenhower penned his World War II memoirs, he could have revealed dramas and conflicts among the Second World War’s great characters and heroes. There were plenty of tales to tell. For example, Eisenhower disliked and was disliked by Field Marshals Bernard Montgomery and Alan Brooke. Churchill was often insufferable. And Eisenhower had, at the end, a poor relationship with General George Patton, who was to say prophetically before his untimely death that he hoped Ike would make a better president than he was a general. But none of these stories made it into Crusade in Europe, which he wrote himself (unlike his later White House memoirs). The book became a bestseller and remains a classic of the genre. It is a substantive and honest account, but doesn’t drive daggers into backs or between ribs.

Admiral James Stavridis’ new book, The Accidental Admiral, is very much in this vein. Stavridis, perhaps the ultimate warrior-scholar of his generation, offers his views on contentious events candidly, but does not let himself get bogged down in score-settling and vitriol. It is fitting that this book should recall Crusade in Europe. Ike was the first Supreme Allied Commander Europe (SACEUR), serving as the first military commander of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Stavridis was the 16th, taking the chair (or rather chairs: the SACEUR is also Commander of U.S. European Command and must sit in more than one headquarters, although it doesn’t sound like there was much sitting) in the summer of 2009. The first admiral to hold that position, Stavridis served his country ably by leading NATO’s military operations until May 2013. As such, he was a key participant and close witness to some of the most consequential strategic decisions and military operations the United States and its allies have undertaken in the last decade. These include the “surge” of forces into Afghanistan for a more comprehensive counterinsurgency campaign, the UN authorized intervention in Libya, and the decision to not launch a similar intervention in Syria as the country ruptured into a vicious civil war that still shows no signs of ending.

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The Accidental Admiral is valuable, and perhaps even vital, for those seeking to understand the history and context of major foreign policy decisions during the Obama administration. On balance, Stavridis agreed with President Obama’s decisions more often than he disagreed with them. But some of those disagreements were on hot-button issues. Most notably, the Admiral endorses a longer and firmer commitment to Afghanistan and associates himself with Senator McCain’s interventionist position on Syria. Stavridis, however, does this without any of the buck-passing or back-biting that have featured prominently in many other recent foreign policy critiques.

Some of the Admiral’s professionalism may stem from his ingrained respect for civil-military relations. Now out of uniform, however, he was in many ways (but not all) free from those bonds and could have penned a more stinging critique in the vein of Alan Brooke’s War Diaries, which excoriated Churchill, or told tales out of school like Robert Gates and Leon Panetta did in their recent memoirs. This approach undoubtedly would have sold more books. Instead, Stavridis chose to be respectful and civil without diminishing the substance of his disagreements.

The approach is effective. Even though I disagree with Stavridis on the Libyan intervention, Syria, and the doctrine of the responsibility to protect (R2P), I found myself more willing to engage with his arguments because he presented them forthrightly and constructively. This approach contrasts favorably with others who share some of Stavridis’ views, but use pens that are too jagged. As a result, those who read the book will have a more rewarding reading experience, and may be more likely to reconsider their own positions.

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Accidental Admiral has many other strengths. The book offers rich lessons in the challenges of running too many headquarters, regularly interacting with dozens of foreign heads of state and senior defense officials, and overseeing major military operations in multiple hotspots. The book’s 10th chapter on leadership should be mandatory reading for all military officers, and not just in the United States. “Spend at least one-fourth of your disposable time on personnel matters,” and “Make mentorship a priority,” Stavridis intones. The Admiral clearly understands the human factor in everything as well as anyone – not least in the context of leadership.

All in all, when considering the place of The Accidental Admiral in the cannon of military memoirs, I’m sure Ike would have enjoyed it a great deal.


Ryan Evans is the editor-in-chief of War on the Rocks.


Photo credit: NATO Training Mission-Afghanistan