As a young naval officer, it took just one great commanding officer on my first ship to show me how special command at sea could be, but it took me more than a decade to decide I might have what it took to do so myself. I suspect I was not alone, because on a certain level, command, like marriage or becoming a parent for the first time, is something that you can’t fully understand until you are in the role. To paraphrase a former boss who commanded at multiple levels, “After a day at sea in command, you’ll know more about the job than what you thought you knew in the sixteen years you’ve been dreaming about it.”
Fortunately, that does not mean that you can’t make yourself better prepared for a job that is more than worth the wait. For me, the combination of some superb leaders at sea, capable instruction at Surface Warfare Officer School (SWOS), and the benefit of five sea tours as part of ship’s company all helped get me ready for command – an opportunity I dearly hoped to have and do well.
Another powerful tool that I used, almost unknowingly at first, that helped me prepare for the job was reading – particularly reading about great leaders at sea. From the depiction of Adm. Raymond Spruance in The Quiet Warrior to fictional heroes like Jack Aubrey in Master and Commander, these books helped convey to someone who had never been in command what the great captains possessed.
Despite these powerful literary examples, it is the story of a small corvette led by an unassuming Royal Naval officer during the Battle of the Atlantic in World War II that had the greatest impact on me as a naval leader. That book, The Cruel Sea, remains a favorite of mine and is still regarded by many as one of the great novels of the sea.
While the book’s author, Nicholas Monsarrat, who served on corvettes during World War II himself, vividly channels the spirit of a number of characters who fight on HMS Compass Rose, it is his portrayal of the ship’s commanding officer, Lt. Cmdr. George Ericson, that resonated most with me. Ericson may not be as cerebral as Spruance or as charismatic as Jack Aubrey, but as the reader accompanies him on his first command, his first wartime patrol and ultimately his first command of a multi-ship convoy through more than five years at war, Ericson’s qualities slowly but surely become undeniable.