Risky Business

To Risk It All: Nine Conflicts and the Crucible of Decision” by Admiral James Stavridis (U.S. Navy, ret.)

Most of the names are familiar (John Paul Jones, for example) or ought to be (Dorie Miller, for one) in “To Risk It All: Nine Conflicts and the Crucible of Decision” but the book is not just another sentimental voyage down maritime lane.

Adm. James Stavridis (U.S. Navy, ret.) enjoyably and admirably presents nine lives in the belief that their aptitudes for decision-making, if not always their methods, offer the rest of us lessons in leadership. (There are 10 lives if you count Cdr. Ernest Evans, the Native American who is featured in the introduction.)

“To Risk It All” is a blend of history and biography – Who, What, When, Where – with professional assessments and personal asides regarding Why and How. The book “is a historical meditation on the nature of decision-making under stress.”

But you don’t have to be a sailor to savor salient points. The collection is for “any reader who must make hard decisions in his or her work and life,” Stavridis says.

Although the structure is chronological, you could start at the beginning with a historically logical first choice, Capt. Jones of the Continental Navy, or you could begin at the end with a subject might make a strictly by-the-rules reader aghast:

Capt. Brett Crozier, commanding officer of the U.S.S. Theodore Roosevelt – the aircraft carrier on which the COVID-19 virus is “running rampant” in 2020. Crozier sends a “red flare” plea for help that results in “a firestorm of criticism directed toward his Navy chain of command and ultimately toward his own leadership.”

Stravridis sides with Crozier. The admiral had selected Crozier for a NATO task force and in 2019 figured he would soon be a one-star officer.

Not so.  Aboard the Roosevelt, Crozier is “forced to play a very bad hand of cards,” a hand worse “than any other decision-maker in this book” except U.S.S. Pueblo commanding officer Lt. Cdr. Lloyd Bucher and Capt. Jones.

Like Bucher, Crozier is “boxed in by circumstances with the risk of losing human life over a very unclear objective.” What might Stavridis do differently if he were facing Crozier’s dilemma? “Not much.”

In 1968, “Pete” Bucher gets into hot water “over his failure to fire a shot” against North Koreans who seize intelligence-gathering vessel. In the moment, Bucher’s priorities are to save the lives of his crew and the secrets in his cargo, Stavridis reports. “Don’t give up the ship” has been around since 1813, but Stavridis believes “tradition for its own sake” is not a substitute for substantive evaluation. Bucher’s choosing takes “real courage and common sense,” not cowardice.

Situations such as Bucher’s and Crozier’s might make us “all like to think we would be John Paul Jones,” Stavridis writes.

However, Jones has “immense vanity, deep insecurity . . . and enormous ambition” – plus a temper that “would flare often at sea,” which makes a reader hope for a boss like a Bucher or a Crozier.

Jones’ decision “to continue a seemingly lost battle” in 1779 makes him a star with a crypt at the U.S. Naval Academy, and his “obstinate determination to fight through every obstacle, no matter the cost, is still very much part of the ethos of our Navy.”

Evidently belligerence is no barrier to beatification.

Also memorialized in Annapolis – at Halsey Field House, where Stavridis “could forget all my complaints about the Academy when I stepped on the varsity squash courts” – is impulsive Adm. William “Bull” Halsey, who never meets a decision worth a fret.

In 1944, his choices at Leyte Gulf are a gamble because he makes a poor choice and “compounded it with his personal pique and anger.” He is “reprieved by an equally bad decision” by a Japanese admiral. His actions are “recklessly overaggressive, but the spirit in which he made them echoes on in our Navy today.”

The better-natured Lt. Stephen Decatur has “emotional intelligence” and “physical courage,” and he balances risks with “rock-solid” planning at Tripoli in 1804. Rear Adm. David Farragut looks like an older Matthew McConaughey and in 1864 at Mobile Bay he fears not technology or the odds. “His calculating rational mind and unquestioned physical courage with a genuine personal touch” endears him to sailors such as Stavridis, who would “gladly sail” under Farragut’s flag.

At Manila Bay in 1898, Comdre. George Dewey, whose autobiography “reads in terms of tone and sobriety much like the classic memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant,” displays boldness “at the right moment, which arrived through his preparation.”

The only enlisted sailor among nine, Cook 3rd Class Doris “Dorie” Miller is a selfless saint in 1941 when he rises above “the barriers that society place in front of him” at Pearl Harbor. The African American in a segregated Navy “consistently took initiative – and personal risk – far beyond the scope of any orders.”

Another African American – and the only woman profiled – is Rear Adm. Michelle Howard, who commands the 2009 rescue of Capt. Richard Phillips from Somali pirates. Howard is responsible for what transpires during the Maersk Alabama incident, allows decisions to be made by others, and “deserves credit for not seeking credit.”

Her military service is a “vibrant legacy,” and Stavridis admits “to be among those who mentored her.”

A former Supreme Allied Commander of NATO, Stavidris is chair of the Rockefeller Foundation and a vice chair at Carlyle Group. He is also a prolific writer, and his name is on two books published last year alone:

“The Sailor’s Bookshelf: 50 Books to Know About the Sea” and “2034: A Novel of the Next World War,” a dip into thriller waters co-written with Marine veteran and National Book Award finalist Elliot Ackerman. This reviewer’s take on the novel? “The premise is scary, the situation is catastrophic, and the scenario feels real.”

Stavridis’ latest is appropriate for a manager or executive’s bookcase. If the publisher adds much-needed battle maps, future editions will give a reader no reason to jump ship.

 Huffman has reviewed 400+ books published during the Iraq and Afghanistan war era, and he received the Military Reporters and Editors’ 2018 award for commentary. He serves on the board of Student Veterans of America and co-edited “The End of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” (2012, Marine Corps University Press). He has led discussions at Defense Information School and Marine Corps War College and has advised newsrooms from Defense News to Dubai to Delhi and back.

Nine Tips from Stavridis

The author hopes “that you never in fact have to risk it all,” but, just in case, he offers keys for making sensible, ethical and successful decisions quickly:

  • “Gather all the intelligence.
  • “Understand the timeline.
  • “Methodically consider the possible outcomes of your decision – both good and bad.
  • “Evaluate the resources.
  • “Focus on your people – but don’t be paralyzed with fear over their well-being.
  • “Don’t get emotionally involved in people who are roadblocks.
  • “Be willing to change your mind.
  • “Be determined.
  • “Be prepared to execute.”

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