Book Notes – Sea of Glory: The 7 Habits of the Highly Insecure Leader

Lacking confidence in your leadership?  Are you an insecure leader?  Sometimes the things we are tempted to do to compensate for insecurity are the worst options, as Lieutenant Wilkes, United States Navy, found out the hard way in 1838.  Here’s what happened, how you can avoid these seven deadly habits, and build the confidence you need to lead.

Sea of Glory - Nathaniel Philbrick

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Uncertain Footing

In Sea of Glory: America’s Voyage of Discovery Nathaniel Philbrick tells the tale of the United States Exploring Expedition of 1838-42.

It was the most ambitious and far-reaching exploratory expedition of the time: Find out what was down at the south pole, chart undiscovered Pacific islands, and make scientific discoveries around the world.

Wilkes was chosen to lead it.  Not because he was best qualified.  Because no one else wanted to.

The expedition was a political football.  Conflicting goals, support of one political party but not another, and bureaucratic infighting caused a ten year delay between the idea and its fruition.  Along the way more senior and qualified officers actively avoided taking the command; they saw the political strings as potentially hazardous to their careers.

So it fell to First Lieutenant Charles Wilkes, who desperately wanted the chance to command.

But because of the infighting, he was never promoted to a rank appropriate for leading such an expedition.

Down the Rabbit Hole

Socially awkward, combative, and sensitive by nature, his lack of rank magnified his feelings of insecurity.  Before long, he started to show the deadly habits of the highly insecure, and his actions began to turn his crew against him.

1. Arrogance. He brazenly put on the epaulets of a Captain, though his officers suspected that he had not actually been promoted.  He refused to listen to the suggestions of others.

2. Over-control. He appointed the inept and incapable into key positions because he knew he could control them; he badgered and abused his most capable officers because he saw them as a threat.

3. Making Power Displays. He boldly flew the pennant of a Commodore, though he had never been awarded that rank.  He punished others excessively and unnecessarily.

4. Closing Lines of Communication.  He stopped speaking with his officers on anything other than a professional level, attempted to keep them from eating together, and made himself all but unapproachable.

5. Fomenting distrust.  He confiscated his officer’s personal journals, accused them of plotting mutiny, and treated innocent errors as deliberate plots to undermine his authority.

6. Reacting Emotionally. He reacted irrationally and unpredictably to the smallest transgressions, whether real or perceived, especially if they came from his most capable officers.

7. Working to Exhaustion. He exhausted himself, doing tasks that he could have delegated, often allowing himself no more than three or four hours of sleep a night.

What We Have Here is a Failure….

Led by a commander who continually committed these seven deadly sins, the voyage of discovery soon morphed into a voyage of misery that dragged on for four years.

Oddly enough, the expedition itself was largely a success.  They managed to discover a new continent (Antarctica), survey hundreds of uncharted islands in the Pacific, map the mouth of the Columbia River, and make discoveries that propelled the United States to the forefront of the international scientific community.

So why haven’t we heard of this historic expedition?

Because all those accomplishments were overshadowed by the leadership failures.

When the expedition finally returned, the occasion was not marked by the victory parades that it merited.  Instead Wilkes and his officers entered into an endless parade of public charges and counter charges, accusations, complaints, and one court martial after another.

The entire affair became such an embarrassment that the political leadership just wanted it to all go away.  And so it gradually did, until the publication of Sea of Glory.

Insecure Leader – The Takeaway

What can we learn from all of this?  The more you struggle to establish yourself in the position of the leader, the more you are likely to lose in terms of respect, cooperation, and support.

Successful leaders understand and avoid these seven deadly habits.  Instead they will do the opposite, and in the process, become much more secure in their leadership positions.

1. Act with humble confidence.  You don’t have to know everything; that’s impossible anyway.  But if you ask good questions, show you are learning quickly, and work for the benefit of the organization, you will be moving in the right direction.

Related: The Humble Leader Paradox

2. Be a giver, not a taker.  Give credit to those who deserve it.  Give positive feedback to your teammates so they know when they are on the right track.  Delegate to those who have shown they can be trusted.

Leaders give a little more of the credit, take a little more of the blame. Click To Tweet

3. Avoid self-indulgent displays of power.  Parading around and surrounding yourself with the trappings of power does not make you a leader.  And if people don’t subscribe to your inflated sense of self, you will appear all the more shallow and unworthy of following.

Being powerful is like being a lady. If you have to tell people you are, you aren’t. -Thatcher Click To Tweet

4. Widen the lines of communication.  If you don’t know what’s going on, you can’t act wisely.  So though you might be tempted to ball up and shut down, you need to open up, cultivate the right nodes in your network, and make the information flow.  Look on information as a source of power that can help you lead.

If you shoot the messenger, pretty soon the messages you really need to hear will stop coming. Click To Tweet

5. Entrust others.  Start with the idea that others are trustworthy, and treat them accordingly.  Establishing an environment of trust begins with the leader.  When they see an expectation of trust, people will generally strive to be worthy of that trust.   Be trustworthy yourself to set the example.

6. Stay calm.  When you allow your temper to rise, your ability to think clearly falls.  Leadership happens in between the stimulus and the response.  Take a deep breath, think about what is happening, then respond with a cool head.

He who loses his cool first, loses. Click To Tweet

Related:  How to Respond to Crisis:  4 Steps for Leaders

7. Get some rest.  If you drive yourself into the ground your mind becomes clouded and your thinking gets fuzzy.  That’s not helping anyone.  Build some balance into your life, cultivate outside interests, get a hobby, and get some sleep.

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Sea of Glory is a captivating, engrossing read, full of adventure and discovery.  And while it tells an interesting story of a failed leader, from this example we can learn how to lead well.

Lead On!

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About the Author: Ken Downer
Ken Downer - Founder RapidStart Leadership

Ken served for 26 years in the Infantry, retiring as a Colonel.  From leading patrols in the Korean DMZ, to parachuting into the jungles of Panama, to commanding a remote outpost on the Iran-Iraq border, he has learned a lot about leadership, and has a passion for sharing that knowledge with others.  Look for his weekly posts, check out his online courses, subscribe below, or simply connect, he loves to talk about this stuff.

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