Day of Infamy: Leadership Lessons from the Attack on Pearl Harbor

“Yesterday, December 7, 1941 — a date which will live in infamy — the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by the naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan.”

-President Franklin Roosevelt in his speech to Congress.

“I am afraid we have awakened a sleeping giant.”

-Admiral Yamamoto, Commander of the Japanese attack force

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Every American, no matter their age, conjures up a mental image of the attack on Pearl Harbor when they hear the date December 7. Today, we commemorate the 75th anniversary. This attack was a turning point in the history of our nation and the world. The war that followed lasted nearly four years, and the entire nation mobilized to meet this challenge. But ultimately it was leadership at all levels, exhibited initially on this Sunday morning in Hawaii that allowed America to be successful.

The actions of leaders on both sides of this historic battle made the difference in the events on that day — for better or for worse — and arguably set the conditions that determined the course of World War II. It is no overstatement to say that Pearl Harbor on the beautiful island of Hawaii proved to be one of the most important and intense “leadership laboratories” in the history of modern warfare.

As we reflect on the courage and sacrifice of the brave servicemen on that day, what can we discern about the actions of their leaders? And what can we learn about leadership in a complex, rapidly evolving, high-pressure environment like the one we are living and working in today? While there are innumerable leadership lessons that can be drawn from this event let me use three examples.

Leaders must act in a crisis and feel empowered to act. The battle actually began at 0342 that morning. The minesweeper USS Condor detected a periscope at the entrance to Pearl Harbor. The captain of the Condor sent a message to the USS Ward, a destroyer on patrol in the harbor. Sighted submerged submarine on westerly course, speed 9 knots.

The Ward was commanded by Lieutenant William Outerbridge. He had assumed command on December 5, but still immediately ordered his ship to engage what turned out to be a Japanese mini-submarine that was attempting to enter the harbor.

All leaders will face a “crisis” at one point or another and several factors are important. First, crises demand that organizations have developed solid leadership and organizational preparation. Second, leading in a crisis takes more than just common sense. Leaders must establish a climate that allows those they lead to make decisions, fail, and grow. Third, it is critical that everyone in the organization even the newest person feels empowered to act.

Lieutenant Outerbridge’s quick actions are consistent with each of these.

Leaders must challenge assumptions particularly during changing times. The Army-Navy game in 1941 was played on November 29 in Philadelphia Municipal Stadium. Navy would defeat Army 14-6. The program for the game contained a full-page picture of a battleship and noted that it had “never been successfully attacked from the air.” The Pearl Harbor attack began at 0755 eight days later. Within 10 minutes half the battleships were badly damaged. The battleship was no longer the centerpiece of what 20th-century navies were all about.

Leaders must promote organizational resilience. The United States suffered 2,335 dead and 1,178 wounded on December 7. Over 180 aircraft were destroyed and 18 ships badly damaged or sunk. This included eight battleships, three cruisers, and four other vessels. It was perhaps the worst military defeat in American history. But all the American aircraft carriers were at sea.

America recovered quickly. Four months after the attack (18 April 1942) sixteen B25 bombers took off from the USS Hornet and conducted a bombing raid on Tokyo. On June 4, 1942 the American and Japanese fleets fought perhaps the most important battle of the war in the Pacific near Midway Island. Japanese Admiral Yamamoto sent four of his carriers to draw out the American fleet and hopefully destroy the carriers. But in the ensuing battle, the Japanese lost all four of their carriers while the US Navy lost won.

This can also be illustrated in the American industry’s reaction to Pearl Harbor. On December 7, 1941 the US Navy had eight aircraft carriers and 112 submarines. At the end of the war the Navy would have 140 carriers and 214 submarines.

Scientist Brian Walker and David Salt in their book, Resilience defined it as: “the capacity of a system to absorb disturbance and still retain its basic function and structure.” Bad things will happen, and effective leaders must insure their organizations can “bounce back.” Every ship that was part of the Japanese task force that attacked Pearl Harbor was sunk by September 1945.

As we reflect on the sacrifices of those Americans who lost their lives on December 7, 1941 let us further consider what we can learn from this iconic event that will make each of us a better leader.

Perhaps the words of former Secretary of State Colin Powell are appropriate. Leadership is the art of getting your people to accomplish more than they may think is possible.


Dr. Jeff McCausland, Founder and CEO, Diamond6 Leadership and Strategy, LLC

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