Fostering Excellence
Bringing out the best in each of us
For those of you who are fans of military historical fiction, you will not want to miss out on the Horatio Hornblower saga by CS Forester which follows Hornblower from a gangly 17 year-old midshipmen to the rank of Admiral. Following his career is not only an exciting read, and a glimpse into a naval era long since gone, it also provides insights into what makes for an effective military leader. Set during the Napoleonic Wars, readers will watch Hornblower master ships and seas as he leads his crew in desperate battles. He nearly always prevailed, but only because he built power fighting teams through effective leadership. Hornblower displayed leadership traits that are as relevant today as they were in the past. Here is my short list of the leadership qualities Hornblower demonstrated which remain highly relevant for military leaders today:  

6 Reasons Why Hornblower Will Always be a Must-Read for Military Leaders

Researched his area of operations – As a naval officer during the Napoleonic Wars period, his potential assignments spanned the globe. Indeed, his assignments included the Eastern Pacific, the Mediterranean, the Atlantic, the Baltic, and the West Indies. Prior to assignments and during the voyage to his area of responsibility, Hornblower would read the academic research available on the political, economic, and military state of affairs there. This deep understanding directly influenced his operational planning, and through his influence as a peer and subordinate, the operations of the fleet. Hornblower was surprised to not find this a common practice among his peers; an implicit warning to modern day leaders. Leaders are readers.

Became a Technical Expert – Hornblower made it a point to become a technical expert on the vessels he commanded. No one was better qualified to navigate the ship or handle the vessel in all weather conditions or in ship-to-ship battle. In these matters, he became the role model to his subordinate officers, and his reputation for technical excellence led his juniors to trust his decisions and to have implicit trust in his command. This remains true today; military leaders need to have technical ‘street cred’ in a 21st century military.

Exemplified Personal Courage – Hornblower constantly agonized over whether he had enough physical courage. However, Horblower would always personally lead the most dangerous missions. Hornblower remained in his place of duty during naval actions, even as his ship received broadside after broadside and he himself the individual target of marines on the opposing ship. In all ways, he exemplified physical courage, sharing in the danger with his crew and personally taking the greatest risks. He understood that displaying physical courage for his troops would do more to win battles than by safely staying alive to lead future battles-his men needed his inspiration more than his commands.

Set High Standards – Hornblower understood that the efficiency and technical skill of his crew were life and death matters. He also understood that crews that met high standards also had high morale. Often the recipient of crews comprised of a hodge podge combination of convicts, draftees and miscreants, Hornblower would drill his crew into a highly effective team. Sail drill and guns drill, day in and day out during the ingress voyage, his crew coalesced around his standards of excellence. Morale improved and his crew would go on to win battle after battle, often under unfavorable odds. Mediocre standards never inspired a crew and never won battles, this is still true today.

Praised his Subordinates – Hornblower understood the power and justice of passing on praise. In his letters to the admiralty, he would call senior leadership’s attention to the merit-worthy acts of his subordinates. He would praise his crew to their faces, and he would promote his enlisted based on their merits-he made sure they knew why they were promoting. As a rule, Hornblower would minimize his contributions and freely pass on the credit to others. His humility and liberal praise allowed for an environment where his subordinates would gladly follow him trusting him to act justly and generously relative to their contributions. Leaders who hoard praise stifle initiative, and strangle the morale of organizations.

Effective Follower – Last, but not least, Hornblower was an effective follower. Hornblower would weigh in during operational planning, tactfully providing contrary advice to his superiors. Hornblower would anticipate the needs of his superiors, fulfilling them prior to being asked, and frequently demonstrated effective initiative. When there was disagreement, Hornblower would follow orders to the best of his ability, never sabotaging the plan through passive-aggressive behaviors. His effective followership all but guaranteed his promotions into higher and higher leadership responsibilities.

In almost all ways, Hornblower exemplified effective leadership. I suppose if I had one gripe, it would be that he would often withhold elements of his plan from his subordinates to conceal failures should the plan not succeed. In this, Hornblower failed to provide an opportunity for additional input into the plan, and failed to develop his subordinates in the more ingenious side of tactical planning. In balance, however, Hornblower deserves our readership and emulation, modeling the best in leadership and followership through satisfying fictional reads.

Michael Farr, PMP, is a Chief Master Sergeant in the U.S. Air Force and founder of He is passionate about recognition and enabling professionals to motivate their organizations through recognizing their member’s excellence. When he is not slaying dragons with his kids, he can be found at @fosterxcellence on Twitter and @fosteringexcellence on Facebook.

Business Skills Your Military Employee Has That You Should Capitalize On

Cost Sharing Training

Why the Military Needs to Adopt a Pay for Performance System

Products and Services