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Posted on Jun 11, 2013 in War College

Five Leadership Lessons from Alfred Thayer Mahan, Prophet of Sea Power

By Benjamin F. Armstrong

Editor’s Note: The September 2008 issue of Armchair General magazine featured the Leadership department article “Alfred Thayer Mahan” by U.S. Navy Lieutenant Commander Benjamin F. Armstrong. Now, Armstrong has written a new book on the famed strategist of seapower, 21st Century Mahan: Sound Military Conclusions for the Modern Era (Naval Institute Press, June 15, 2013). This outstanding “must read” book features five of Mahan’s essays, edited, introduced and analyzed by Armstrong to reveal that Mahan’s actual writings (not what others have written about Mahan) remain relevant to providing today’s readers with a solid foundation to address the challenges of a rapidly globalizing world. Therefore, to re-introduce ACG readers to Mahan – and to whet readers’ appetites for the new book – we republish below Armstrong’s original Leadership department article.


Alfred Thayer Mahan
The U. S. Navy’s prophet of sea power fully recognized the vital importance of leadership.

John Paul Jones rightly is acclaimed as the spiritual father of the U.S. Navy; but Captain Alfred Thayer Mahan (1840-1914) was the modern sea service’s intellectual father – a teacher, mentor and strategist.  Through his Naval War College lectures, numerous articles, and his most famous book, The Influence of Sea Power Upon History, 1660-1783, Mahan established the foundations of modern naval and global strategy in the years leading up to World War I. Mahan’s 1890 Influence of Sea Power book used the maritime struggle between Britain and France in the 18th century to illustrate his ideas regarding sea power, strategy and naval tactics. The work influenced the maritime doctrines of every major naval power in the early 20th century, earning Mahan a place among history’s great military theorists and strategists.

Alfred Thayer Mahan, the modern sea service's intellectual fatherAlthough best known as a theorist and strategist, however, Mahan’s works also illuminate essential qualities of leadership.

Mahan felt that a true leader should always be searching for a way to win.  Skirmishing and maneuver get you nowhere unless they are positioning you for decisive conflict.  Like military strategists before him, including Napoleon and Clausewitz, Mahan saw a climactic battle as the goal of all great men.  A leader can’t just wait for challenges or bad news to go away.

Effective decision makers are leaders of men, not counters of numbers.  Getting bogged down in bureaucracy and balance sheets distract from a leader’s ability to recognize the decisive engagement.  Mahan recognized the importance of administration and logistics, but considered them best handled by specialists rather than executive leaders.  In “Naval Education for Officers and Men,” Mahan’s first published article, he wrote that a focus on science, engineering, and administration tended “to promote caution unduly; substitute calculation for judgment; create trust in formulas instead of trust in one’s self.”

Mahan believed that it was only through sound planning that a leader could put himself in a position to use his judgment and to attain victory in the decisive engagement.  This is where the value of knowing history is vital.  Proper planning requires a leader to know what has worked in the past in order to suggest what might work in the future.  Mahan wrote, “heedlessness of conditions, or recklessness of dangers defeats efforts everywhere.”

A. T. Mahan - teacher, mentor, strategistLEADERSHIP IS AN ART, NOT A SCIENCE
There are no absolutes.  “Science discovers and teaches truths while it has no power to change,” Mahan wrote in his book Naval Strategy, “Art, out of materials which it finds about, creates new forms in endless variety.”  He explained, “Art acknowledges principles and even rules; but these are not so much fetters, or bars, which compel its movements aright, as guides which warn when it is going wrong.”

Risk and the unexpected are a significant part of warfare, but Mahan wrote in National Review that they are “as much of its opportunity as its danger.”  He was an admirer of Britain’s Admiral Lord Nelson for his attitude that embraced risk in order to find great reward.  In an article for McClure’s Magazine in 1899, Mahan declared that “failure to dare is often to run the greatest risk.”

Lt. Cdr. Benjamin F. Armstrong, USN, a 1999 graduate of the U. S. Naval Academy and naval aviator who is currently assigned to the Secretary of the Navy’s personal staff in the Pentagon. He has an MA in military history from Norwich University and is an MPhil/PhD candidate with the Department of War Studies at Kings College, London.