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When compliance leadership collides with learning leadership: What we can learn from the Battle of Midway

Steve Spear


By Steve Spear, MIT Sloan School Senior Lecturer, Principal of HVE LLC, and author of The High Velocity Edge. Spear leads the two-day Executive Education program Creating High Velocity Organizations.


Currently in theatres, Midway is based on the attack on Pearl Harbor and the subsequent Battle of Midway during World War II. Moviegoers will witness the re-creation of the battle, which occurred in early June 1942, and undoubtedly come away with a sense of the horrific nature of warfare. The film reminds us to be circumspect as citizens in a democracy before asking young men and young women to go into harm’s way in our name. It also reminds us of the significant appreciation owed those who take risks on our behalf.

Battle of Midway

As far as the Battle of Midway in particular, audiences will come away amazed that even though American forces were considerably outnumbered by Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN) ships and planes and consequently grotesquely outgunned, they won a victory that military historian John Keegan called "the most stunning and decisive blow in the history of naval warfare.”

That’s a fair claim, because after Midway, the IJN was able to exact enormous cost but was never able to mount a meaningful offensive. The best they could rationally have hoped for was to raise the cost of battle so high as to win a negotiated settlement rather than the devastating destruction and unconditional surrender that they ended up inviting on themselves.

No doubt there will be conversation among viewers as to when the tide of battle reversed, to which there are many right answers. Ultimately, the Americans were helped by breaking IJN coded messages, which gave them some foresight into the battle plan. Audiences will also likely comment on the remarkable bravery displayed by U.S. Navy flyers and sailors, many of whom knew that the successful completion of their assigned tasks was likely at the price of their own lives.

What may be overlooked among these takeaways, however, is that Japan’s defeat was secured decades prior. And that the lessons embedded in this truth have implications far beyond military strategy and national defense.

The failure of command-compliance leadership

In Shattered Sword: The Untold Story of the Battle of Midway, authors Jonathan Parshall and Anthony Tully give a remarkably detailed and hair-raising reconstruction of the Japanese experience in the pivotal battle. They conclude with a section called “Reckonings,” in which they offer the counterintuitive argument that the battle of 1942 was actually lost by 1929, when the Japanese Navy’s senior leadership had made a doctrinal decision on how future wars would be waged in the Pacific using aircraft carriers—a decision extrapolated from the Japanese experience of fighting battleship to battleship against the Russians in 1905 and further informed by a 1916 British-German dreadnought battle in the North Sea.

Battle of Midwa

From this inflexible decision in planning flowed subsequent choices around the construction of aircraft carriers and planes; training of crews; development of tactics; how to arm, re-arm, refuel, launch; and more. Their foundational assumptions went unchallenged with feedback unaccepted. For instance, in preparation for Midway, the IJN Admirals kept losing war games during which they exercised their battle plans. Rather than recognizing the obvious refutation of their thinking, they dismissed the junior officers who stood in for the Americans as being unable to follow the plan as scripted. Not accepting feedback when it was cheap and easy to get, the Imperial Japanese Navy instead received devastating feedback when it counted for a lot.

The IJN’s deprioritization of lessons learned carried over from planning and preparation into actual practice. IJN pilots would go to sea without periodically rotating away from conflict. This was deleterious to emotional and physical well-being and provided insufficient training for novice fliers.

I suppose, it is possible that had the compliance-leadership approach of the IJN collided with another compliance-leadership oriented navy, it might have won. Unfortunately for the Japanese, they collided instead with a learning-leadership oriented U.S.

You see, in the two decades prior to World War II, the U.S. Navy's leadership also wondered how one would fight with aircraft carriers in the Pacific. But U.S. leadership was wise enough to know they didn't have an answer, nor could they just reason their way to a meaningful one absent experience and experimentation. The USN’s leadership ran dozens of exercises (known as “Problems”) in which ships were committed to several days or weeks at sea, where they had to figure out how to best manage refueling, communication, navigation, the logic of launching and recovering, etc. (For more detail, check out the fascinating and comprehensive book, To Train the Fleet for War: The U.S. Navy Fleet Problems, 1923-1940).

Battle of Midway

In fact, the Navy's leadership was so committed to gaining feedback fast and frequently that at the end of these exercises, they didn't retreat to the privacy of a ward room to consider how well their subordinates had executed their superior’s plans. Instead they debriefed quickly and energetically with the officers who had been tasked with solving the problem. Right away, they were being told what was wrong with their thinking from those who had been asked to do the doing.

After Midway, Admiral Nimitz remarked, “Nothing that happened in the Pacific was strange or unexpected.”[1] The relentless experimentation and openness to testing, trying, rejecting, and accepting new ideas at the Naval War College in Newport and on the high seas meant that everything the Japanese threw at the U.S. Navy had been anticipated in practice beforehand. (The one exception to this otherwise consistent pattern was the first kamikaze attack in the Battle of the Leyte Gulf,1944.)

What military history can teach us about leadership

This is all interesting history, but even more so because of the direct implications for management and leadership on a large scale.

All too often in the corporate setting, we think of leaders as people with responsibility and authority, delegated to do the thinking of the organization, processing data with great alacrity, and generating guidance for the rest of the organization. That model of thinking leads to compliance leadership— command and control. Learning leadership, on the other hand, recognizes the value in discovery, cultivating a problem-solving mindset, and challenging assumptions.

All this may sound intuitively obvious to you, but before we dismiss the difficulty of managing in a learning leadership style, let’s conduct three pulse checks.

First, think about something you're currently planning or designing. The bigger, the more idiosyncratic, the more strategically important the better. Identify a few key assumptions on which your goals and your approach are based. How long ago and how aggressively were they challenged? A week, a month, a year, never? Is it possible that like the IJN thinking that fighting with aircraft carriers in 1942 would be like fighting with battleships in 1905 you grounded yourself on unchallenged assumptions?

Second, in the course of your planning, what are the key milestones at which reports and reviews are conducted? When you hold those reviews, are you advocating for your plan and achievements so far? Or, do you stand up, offer that what you have is only the best you could do so far, and ask everyone else to find faults and flaws?

Third, when you’re under the crunch, do you take the most skilled and experienced in your charge and make sure they are fully loaded, ensuring they have neither break nor distraction? Or, do you recognize that if you have them commit at least some time to teaching and coaching, you could have a huge force multiplier?

In the end, the IJN arrived at Midway better equipped but not well enough prepared, because they’d squandered chance after opportunity to build a better understanding of what to do and how to do it. The U.S. Navy arrived less well equipped materially but much better prepared knowing how to succeed. The choice among leadership approaches then is the same choice available now. We should choose wisely.

Learn from Steve Spear firsthand in his two-day Executive Education program Creating High Velocity Organizations.


[1] Chester Nimitz to President of the Naval War College, September 24, 1965, cited in Thomas B Buell “Admiral Raymond A. Spruance and the Naval War College,” Naval War College Review, March 1971, page 33.


Creating High Velocity Organizations
What makes some organizations capable of generating and sustaining high-velocity, unparalleled, relentless improvement and innovation? This program will introduce the fundamental principles by which such acceleration occurs, give examples of those principles in practice, and give participants an opportunity to test how those principles can be applied and translated to their own work.

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