Book review: ‘To Rule the Waves’ offers leadership lessons from the sea

The experiences of maritime greats like Sir Francis Drake can benefit public safety providers today


There is a dichotomy in the way people see policing today. Most citizens believe police do the right things and protect their communities. In contrast, others see many police actions as bad or evil. It’s all a matter of perspective.

Arthur Herman’s book “To Rule the Waves: How the British Navy Shaped the Modern World” focuses on this leadership dichotomy and shows how even the best leaders are not infallible and may suffer from traits of anger and ego. 

The book is a must-have for anyone who yearns to learn about leadership. There is no scenario public safety leaders come across that it doesn’t cover. Three examples that can apply to public safety are those of Francis Drake, Horatio Nelson and Samuel Pepys.

Sir Francis Drake

During Sir Francis Drake's battles with the Spanish Armada, he and other captains were impeccable leaders of their ships’ crews, but they were siloed by the nature of operating individually as privateers. When faced with the challenge of combating the enemy’s fleet, they could not work as a well-trained team. The battle swung toward the English only through the grace of Spanish logistical problems and bad weather.

Lessons for public safety:

  • Your unit may operate at a high level in its silo but struggle when integrating and working with other departments or agencies.
  • Constant training and conducting exercises with other units increase your effectiveness in responding to unusual occurrences or incidents. 

Lord Horatio Nelson

Lord Horatio Nelson is regarded as one of the best naval officers in the history of seafaring. Before the battle of the Nile River, he provided guidance to his ship captains as to the situation and overall objectives. He instructed all captains to take necessary actions to accomplish their tasks and not wait to ask permission. This guidance is now translated into the concept of “commander’s intent.” Nelson’s captains took the opportunity when presented and decimated the opposing fleet.

As with all men, however, Nelson was not infallible. He became angry over a slight and refused to go back to sea. The fleet then suffered a series of losses. After his subordinates came directly to Nelson and asked for his return, he did so. This led to the out-of-the-box “crossing the T” maneuver at the battle of Trafalgar, which became a classic tactic of naval warfare. Nelson’s maneuver and guidance before the battle facilitated the victory even after Nelson was mortally wounded.

Lessons for public safety:

  • Ego and anger can have significant impacts on your subordinates. Look at the bigger picture to protect the public.
  • Use commander’s intent and don’t micromanage.
  • Develop your subordinate leaders and let them practice their skills.

Samuel Pepys

Samuel Pepys was not a sailor but a bureaucrat. As clerk of acts (a civilian officer position responsible for administrative matters) for the Navy Board, he helped transform the British Navy into a permanent fighting powerhouse that ruled the waves. Even those who opposed his original appointment ultimately gave Pepys credit for his accomplishments.

Lessons for public safety:

  • Civilians routinely complain that officers look down on them because they are in support roles and not out running calls.
  • Civilians have a valuable role in every police organization. They need to be respected. Pepys anticipated changes in the operating environment and began preparing for them before frontline personnel realized there was a problem. A civilian who has these skills is worth their weight in gold to any organization. 

These are just examples from “To Rule the Waves.” This book can guide anyone who is either in leadership or wishes to be, in any organization. All that’s required is the imagination to absorb the lessons and apply them to the public safety arena.

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