Leadership Lessons from the Pearl Harbor Disaster

    April 15, 2002

One strategy for achieving your full leadership potential is to study history, and learn from the mistakes of others. I recently read At Dawn We Slept: The Untold Story of Pearl Harbor, the definitive 889-page study of the Japanese sneak attack on Pearl Harbor. The bountiful human errors of leadership suggest lessons for leaders that may help you prevent your competitors from catching you and your company off guard and asleep.

The facts: On Sunday morning, December 7, 1941, the Japanese launched two airstrikes from six aircraft carriers that had approached undetected from the north to within a few hundred miles of Oahu. They caught America napping. Over 2,300 Americans died, and dozens of ships were sunk. In command of Pearl Harbor that morning were Admiral Kimmel (senior commander of the US Pacific Fleet), and Army General Short (in command of Oahu’s defense, as well as ground-based fighter airplanes.) The Army’s responsibility was to protect Oahu from attack, while the Navy’s responsibility was to protect the fleet.

Never underestimate your competition.

In the weeks and months leading up to December 7th, American leaders persistently underrated Japan’s people, her economy, her armed forces, her warships, and her willingness to take on a first-class power. Hence, despite the plans, reports, and war games that were held to ensure being prepared for just such a threat, testimony of many American officers after the event clearly reveals that not one of them actually expected that such a strike could occur.

The key point is: instead of assessing what Japan might reasonably be expected to do, U.S. planners should have concentrated on what she had the capacity to do. For you, this means that you shouldn’t focus on what you think your competitor will do, focus instead on all the options they have the capacity to do. Your competition may well toss logic overboard and take calculated risks. If they do, are you prepared?

It may be your nature to be aggressive and take the offensive, but there will come a time for every leader when he/she must shift to a defensive strategy. When this time comes, the leader must recognize it quickly, and change his/her mindset.

For years, Admiral Kimmel had worked, planned and studied with one idea in mind: That if war came, he would be on the bridge of his flagship speeding to engage the enemy. So, in the weeks and months leading up to December 7th, he failed to recognize that, for the situation he was in, an entirely different defensive mindset was required. Kimmel lacked the perception to read the meaning of the warnings and events of the days leading up to the attack, and he lacked the flexibility to adjust his orientation. As a result, Admiral Kimmel made several costly mistakes, including:

Kimmel allowed antitorpedo nets around his ships to be removed, because conventional wisdom was that Pearl Harbor waters were too shallow for torpedoes to function. (But, unbeknownst to Kimmel, the Japanese had painstakingly re-designed their torpedoes to operate in shallow waters.)

Kimmel’s predictable movement of fleet units enabled Japanese agents to report to Tokyo that major vessels were invariably in port over the weekends.

Kimmel’s most grievous failure was his failure to conduct long-range air reconnaissance in the more dangerous sectors from Oahu during the week preceding the attack.

The knowledge necessary to defeat your opponents probably already exists somewhere in your organization. As a leader, your responsibility is to ensure the systems and processes are in place to identify, recognize the importance of, extract and share that information with everybody who can benefit. The question is, where and who has the information we need, and how can we get that information to the front lines?

Example #1: several months before the sneak attack, in March 1941, Army General Martin and Navy Admiral Bellinger, (who reported to Short and Kimmel), studied the vulnerability of Pearl Harbor and presented their findings. In their report, they accurately predicted the Japanese strike, and many of its specifics. For example, they predicted that the most dangerous form of attack on Oahu would be an air attack, launched from multiple aircraft carriers approaching from the north (so as to avoid commercial shipping lanes, thereby preventing detection). The attack would likely occur at dawn so that the aggressors could approach under cloak of darkness. Martin-Bellinger also were correct in their prediction that the attack would occur prior to an official declaration of war.

Example #2: The Americans had secretly broken the Japanese code. US Navy cryptographers decoded a message in October 1941 from Tokyo to the Japanese consulate in Honolulu that subdivided Pearl Harbor into five zones, and instructed Japanese spies to report on the precise location of specific ships. Two or three lower-level Washington DC-based US naval officers accurately recognized this communication as a possible “bomb plot” – the Japanese were preparing to strike Pearl Harbor by air. But their opinion was not shared by their higher ups. So, unfortunately, the message remained in the home office, and was never sent to field commanders Kimmel or Short.

Example #3: General Short had a functional aircraft warning system – radar – at his disposal, but he did not appreciate it’s usefullness (despite radar having proved its value in the Battle of Britain one year earlier). Short only operated his radar a few hours each day, and he failed to establish a reporting system to account for planes in Hawaiian skies. Thus it was, approximately one hour before the first bombs fell on Pearl Harbor, one of his radar stations picked up an enormous blip headed for Oahu. But they had no way of distinguishing friend from foe, and the blip was mistaken for another flight of American B-17 aircraft due to arrive later in the day.

Your biggest threat will come from what you don’t think your competitor will do. Ask yourself, what is the worst possible thing my #1 competitor could do? Then, be sure you have prepared a defense for that.Army General Short thought that the chief danger against US forces on Oahu was sabatoge. This belief was understandable. The Island population included some 160,000 Japanese, of whom about 38,000 were foreign-born.

Thus, when Short received a “war warning” message from Washington on November 27, 1941, (as a result of a breakdown in peacekeeping talks) his response was to unload his antiaircraft guns, and move the ammunition to secure bunkers located miles away from the gun emplacements. Even worse, he parked his fighter planes in a bunch in the middle of the air fields to make them easier to guard (but this made them easy targets for Japanese bombers). Short’s preoccupation with the sabotage threat virtually ensured the destruction of the US fleet.

You may never receive all the resources you need to get the job done right, but you must do the best you can with what you’ve got! Don’t let a lack of resources paralyze you into inaction. Sometimes, just doing something with less will yield surprising good results. Do what you can, where you are, with what you’ve got, and do it now!

Admiral Kimmel had responsibility for protecting the fleet in the harbor, and his primary means was aerial reconnaisance. For much of 1941 Kimmel and his staffers complained bitterly to superiors in Washington that Hawaii’s 13 Navy PBY reconnaisance planes were inadequate for the job, and Kimmel was right. To conduct 360 degree round-the-clock surveillance would have required 75 or more PBY’s.

Kimmel’s response was to conduct no aerial reconnaissance whatsoever. True, he didn’t have the resources to do a complete job, but he could have done a partial job. In fact, the Martin-Bellinger Report, a copy of which must have been somewhere in his file cabinet, correctly predicted that the Japanese would approach from the North, and strike early in the morning on a weekend. So, he could have focused what planes he did have on the northern sector. But, instead, he did nothing.

If you gain an advantage over your adversary, don’t hesitate to throw the “knock-out punch.”Perhaps the biggest blunder of the Pearl Harbor attack, in retrospect, was committed by the Japanese. Their decision not to launch a 3rd strike (after the first two had been incredibly successful), and their decision to target only the American ships, enabled Americans to recover in fairly short order. While many American ships were sunk, the shallow waters of Pearl Harbor enabled the US to salvage and restore all but two fighting ships. The attack had been months in planning, and the Japanese goal was to destroy the Pacific fleet. Why then, did they not recognize the importance of destroying Pearl Harbor’s ground assets, such as machine shops, gasoline supplies, oil tanks and storage facilities? It was these fixed resources on land which would have been the most difficult to replace and, yet, these resources were virtually untouched.

Kevin Davis is president of TopLine Leadership Inc., a company that provides sales and sales management training programs to corporations including BellSouth, IKON, Siebel Systems, as well as many smaller, aggressive growth companies. A former executive with Lanier Worldwide, Kevin’s ideas are the result of almost 25 years of sales, sales management and training experience. He is the author of the highly-acclaimed book and audiobook, Getting Into Your Customer’s Head. He can be reached at (888)545-SELL or visit his web site at www.toplineleadership.com.

Kevin Davis delivers dynamic seminars on consultative sales and sales management/leadership skills. His ideas are the result of almost 25 years of corporate sales, sales management and training experience. A former executive with Lanier Worldwide, Kevin is the author of the award-winning book, Getting Into Your Customer’s Head. For additional information, call 1-888-545-SELL, or visit his company’s website at http://www.toplineleadership.com