Book review: What law enforcement leaders can learn from ‘Halsey's Typhoon'

A long-forgotten event demonstrates how a complex and rapidly changing tragedy draws on experience, teamwork, commitment and fortitude

“Halsey’s Typhoon” is an outstanding study in leadership.
“Halsey’s Typhoon” is an outstanding study in leadership.

By Matt Heins

Leadership, under the best of conditions, is challenging. Engaged leaders continuously search for the perfect balance between accomplishing the organization’s goals and ensuring they are attending to the well-being of employees. In a highly functional organization, these two forces are aligned. When they are opposed, it becomes blatantly apparent to employees and external stakeholders, exhibited by a dysfunctional organization.

Halsey’s Typhoon: The True Story of a Fighting Admiral, an Epic Storm, and an Untold Rescue” by Bob Drury and Tom Clavin, is a gripping story of Admiral William Halsey and his Third Fleet who were assigned to assist General Douglas MacArthur’s triumphant return to the Philippines in December 1944 in the Pacific Theater. As the story unfolds, operational plans are quickly impacted when the Third Fleet unknowingly sails into Typhoon Cobra forcing Admiral Halsey to make excruciating decisions on prioritizing his men's mission or safety. As conditions deteriorate, vital communications break down, new obstacles are presented and indecisiveness takes over. Leadership's challenges and burdens are front and center in this unique story about the human spirit and resiliency.

Decision-making dangers

Complacency and assumptions are often found as the main ingredients in leadership failures. In law enforcement today, demands are many and come at lightning speed requiring leaders to process a vast amount of information to make quick decisions. To handle the workload, human nature conditions us to make the same or similar decisions when presented with circumstances that have a somewhat similar set of facts. This is where the dangers of decision-making can occur for leaders.

When the weather began to take a turn for the worse, Admiral Halsey assumed, from experience, that he was dealing with a tropical storm. With very little thought, he determined, based on his knowledge of dealing with previous storms, that he could ride out the threat, and it would have little impact on invasion plans, which were moving full throttle ahead. These assumptions put the Third Fleet in a deadly struggle with Mother Nature that resulted in the death of almost 800 men.

Leaders must take the time to analyze the facts for each problem presented. Caution must be taken not to assume a problem is like all others resulting in impulsive decisions based on the belief they worked previously so they should work again. Time permitting – which is the case a high percentage of the time –  seeking differing opinions, studying the material, asking “why” five times, or waiting a period after a decision is made to reassess and confirm it is the correct one, are simple yet effective methods to guard against erroneous choices.

Leadership styles

Leadership style varies from person to person. Developing leaders should be well-read and diversify their experiences so they may observe and emulate the leadership styles that are effective and fit them. Responsibility for an entire organization rest on a leader’s shoulder. While this can result in a tremendous amount of pressure, leaders often forget that if they develop the right style, an extensive support system can be in place to relieve some stress.

Admiral Halsey developed a reputation as a hard-charging, demanding leader. One excerpt from the book provides a clear picture of his style, “No sailor in the Pacific dared question Halsey’s acumen, intuition or seamanship.” At one point, commanders did not want to spill ballast and refuel, which could have taken up to 10 hours, for fear of keeping an anxious Halsey waiting, even if this meant putting their ships at risk of capsizing.

Leaders must create an atmosphere that welcomes input and varying perspectives. Those on the front line often have the most insightful feedback on operational issues. Systems, if not constructed correctly for input, can cause a decision to go askew from the point of inception, at the top, to its implementation on the street. Leaders must cultivate open and honest feedback to make the best decisions possible. You must be willing to hear the bad news and not “shoot the messenger” if you hope to make sound decisions based on factual and accurate information. The reputation as an input seeker will open the floodgates of information.

The ability to adapt

A leader’s willingness to adapt, change or modify a decision is vital when achieving strategic goals. I firmly believe no decision is final, and there is always time or opportunity to stop, reassess and change course if the facts prove necessary. Being able to admit a decision was wrong or that there was a better path will demonstrate to employees you are willing to listen and change your mind.

In the autumn of 1944, plans were moving forward with the invasion of the Philippines. Countless staff hours, resources and materials had been expended and committed to the plan. Admiral Halsey commented in the Court of Inquiry, “The thought of striking Luzon was uppermost in our heads right up to the last minute.” There was a tremendous amount of pressure to continue to push forward, regardless of the increasing number of facts that indicated a typhoon was developing, to see the operation through to finality. The focus on the results, irrespective of the information that continued to flow in, indicating an increasing threat to the Third Fleet and its men, resulted in a catastrophe of monumental proportions.

Finding the balance

“Halsey’s Typhoon” is an outstanding study in leadership. The challenges faced by leaders during a major offensive in World War II are applicable today in the ever-changing environment of law enforcement. This fast-paced, mesmerizing and harrowing story of missed opportunities, communication breakdowns and tunnel vision overlooking essential clues is a must-read for developing leaders or those with a continuous improvement mindset.  

In finding the balance between strategic success and employee well-being, leaders must constantly evaluate the environment, identify the threats and opportunities, and be prepared to change course, stop or retreat to fight another day. A willingness to admit you made a wrong decision, seek counsel from others, pay attention to the entire picture and avoid becoming complacent are all hallmarks of a great leader. Leadership is a team effort. Your employees will either ensure your success or your failure. As a leader, you decide which one it will be. Be safe!

About the author

Matt Heins, ARM, AINS, ASP, worked for the Jackson Police Department from 1989 until his retirement in December 2017. He worked various assignments beginning with patrol and through the ranks until being appointed as Chief of Police in December 2007. In 2011 he was assigned additional responsibility as the Fire Chief under the title Director of Police and Fire Services. In January 2017, he was hired as a security manager for Henry Ford Allegiance Health in Jackson, Michigan. In March 2018 he was hired as a Loss Control Specialist with Meadowbrook Insurance for the Michigan Municipal League.

He received a bachelor’s in criminal justice from Michigan State University and a master’s in public administration from Western Michigan University. He is a past graduate of the Leadership Academy, Northwestern School of Police Staff and Command, and the FBI National Academy. He has been an adjunct professor at Jackson College as well as Siena Heights University. He currently serves as a Board Trustee for Jackson College.

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