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Recent Book Review published in Naval Historical Foundation (3/17/15)



Reviewed by Phillip G. Pattee, Ph.D.

Against the Tide: Rickover’s Leadership Principles and the Rise of the Nuclear Navy is Dave Oliver’s second book on leadership. His first book, Lead On!: A Practical Approach to leadership (1992), distills some hard learned lessons on leading from his naval career. Since both books discuss leadership with the idea that leadership principles have wide applicability both in military and civilian organizations, there are areas where the two books cover similar ideas. With another twenty-two years of perspective, experience and wisdom gained in his post navy career, however, Rear Admiral Oliver does not succumb to just updating his ideas. He instead presents numerous vignettes he tackles the leadership principles of one of history’s more controversial figures, Admiral Hyman G. Rickover.

I loved this book. At first, I could not say why. After finishing the book, I could not elegantly state what Rickover’s leadership principles were, or where Rear Admiral Dave Oliver listed them in the book. I discussed that with one of my peers who proposed that I simply enjoyed the stories. I did enjoy them. Oliver is a masterful storyteller, but that wasn’t it. The chief appeal of the book is that it made me think.

In Oliver’s earlier book, Lead On!, each chapter is focused on a key leadership idea, supported with judiciously selected anecdotes to illustrate the principle. At the book’s end, Oliver includes a chapter that summarized each point to tie the whole together in a tidy, well-organized package. Against the Tide does not follow that pattern. Instead, it leads the reader to engage the challenges faced by Rickover as he sought to integrate an entirely new technology into navy culture. Oliver does this by telling stories related to the rise of the nuclear navy. The stories are often Dave Oliver’s personal experiences, as he was positioned throughout his career to observe Rickover’s actions. He also integrates various perspectives from many other officers who served. The memoirs of numerous retired officers, interviewed by Paul Stillwell and published by the Naval Institute, populate the bibliography.

Readers will not find a summary of Rickover’s leadership principles within the book. Instead, Oliver asks a series of Socratic questions at the end of each chapter that, if honestly reflected upon, will divulge principles, where they were used purposely and consistently, where mistakes occurred, and that will inform judgments about using them to bring about cultural change or manage a start up in their own circumstances. Oliver is not trying to persuade his readers to copy Rickover, but to examine him. I am sure I will find myself reading this book again and I have already recommended it to others.

During his naval career, Dave Oliver also observed the leadership of Admiral Elmo R. Zumwalt. As a bonus, in the chapter titled, “Elephant Instincts,” Oliver contrasts Zumwalt’s leadership with that of Rickover. While these men were not rivals, neither shared the same goals and vision for the navy. Oliver judges Rickover’s efforts to build a nuclear navy and a culture that would sustain it completely successful. In contrast, considering the differences in time available (decades for Rickover and four years for Zumwalt), the latter only made progress toward his goals. Oliver invites the reader to ponder which methods were effective and which less so. He does not crown a winner, but asks how each leader might have benefitted from the methods employed by the other.

The book contains a comprehensive bibliography and index. The endnotes do provide some source information for each chapter, however, they mainly serve the role of providing ancillary information—some notes that did not make it into the body of the work are over a page long. Much of this material provides additional insight into Rickover’s leadership and if not read in conjunction with the main body of the book, loses context. Full understanding necessitates frequent flipping back and forth from the notes to the chapter at hand. For example, Oliver devotes a chapter to Rickover’s controversial interview process, wherein the Admiral personally approved each officer’s entrance into the program and Oliver’s own interview experience is buried in the notes.

That criticism aside, anyone aspiring to leadership can benefit from reading Against the Tide. I do not recommend it as your first book on leadership, particularly if you are a junior leader. Your time would be better spent with Lead On! If you have read other leadership books, or are at a middle level or higher position in your organization, this book will richly reward your effort.

Dr. Pattee is a member of the faculty at the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College.

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An evening in New London, Connecticut



Jim Roy and the Electric Boat Management Council (the men and women chiefly responsible today for building our national nuclear submarine fleet) invited me to speak at their monthly dinner about Intent to Deceive. Our original date was snowed out last month and the alternate was this past Tuesday evening.


This was a particularly enjoyable audience to speak with because of their shared responsibility for designing and building safety into the submarines America’s sailors subsequently sail into danger. This community as a whole understands they are fortunate to have their self-interests and livelihood coincide with a larger purpose that serves America’s interests.

We spoke of the critical role their predecessors had played in building the first nuclear submarine, in leading the way in the changing of the culture of the submarine force, and in many of the critical technology advances. In the question and answer period we also discussed that the country now faced similar questions to those that had led America to first build a powerful nuclear submarine force.

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Three Men of Modern Manufacturing



I was being interviewed by Erik Ofgang of Connecticut Magazine this morning. His questions reminded me how few recognize the contemporaneous and parallel accomplishments of Admiral Rickover, Bill Smith of Motorola and W. Edwards Deming.

My book alludes to the fact that Rickover drove industry, as well as the Navy, to better standards than anyone had ever believed possible, and then even higher. Smith did the same thing for computer chip reliability as it was the only way to gain market acceptance for small calculators.  His efforts were subsequently documented in what has become known as Six Sigma.

Dr.Deming was the American electrical engineer generally credited with starting the quality revolution (Kaizen) which nearly destroyed America’s Big Three until Ford hired him to return to the US.

Fortunately for America, all three of these men were working for us all at the same time.

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Day Trips into Cold War History



Several publicists have been working to get more visibility for Against the Tide. One venue they are using is the radio interview, which tends to emphasize the size and diversity of our country. I have spoken to Frank and Taylor during morning drive time in New York (while I  looked out over the rolling black of the Pacific Ocean) and later the same day listened to the afternoon sounds of Clive, Iowa before speaking to John Busbee.

I have done about a dozen interviews now. It is sometimes the first time the interviewer has seen the Cold War period through anything other than a Vietnam focus, and they are interested in sharing this with their audiences.  I think I subconsciously understood very few Americans have an accurate historical context of the Cold War or I would have written this Rickover book differently, but some of my interviewers have said Against the Tide has changed their view of Cold War history.

I have begun to think of these radio segments as day trips into the past.


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Snow Alters Plans



Snow in New England in January — who could have expected such an event?  Blizzard Juno moved through New York to Boston this week, sweeping away my speaking engagements with the Electric Boat Management Council, Connecticut Magazine and Tom Pieragostini.

Linda and I flew into the area early, in the event Mother Nature changed her mind, a good idea since New York and Mass closed all their roads for a period and spent the days reading and watching the snow swirl.  We will have to replan for March.  Perhaps we can catch the dogwood blossoming.

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Against the Tide in 3rd Printing; San Diego Plans



Which will be out in February, but the publisher (Naval Institute Press) told me yesterday he still has 300 copies of the second printing available.

Linda and I are firming up our San Diego plans (7-12 February) if there are any groups in that area who would like us to speak.

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2nd Printing Available Soon



Amazon has just announced that they will have books available for shipment on 10 January — a good thing.  These books are from the second printing, which the publisher commissioned in December.

Jim Roy of the Electric Boat Managers’ Council has asked me to be their dinner speaker (Groton, CT) on Tuesday, 27 January. Given the critical role that particular shipyard continues to play in the development of our nuclear submarine force, this should be a interesting audience. The previous day in NYC we will tape an interview about Rickover with Fox.

February 7 to 12 we are in San Diego for book events coincidental with Navy West. The week of 16 March we will be back in DC to speak to Business Executives for National Security. There are also events at the Navy Memorial and the Ralph J Bunche Library at the State Department.

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The Birth of Nuclear Power



It has been instructive the last two years to watch Michael Pack (and his spouse, Gina) put together the Rickover documentary which showed on PBS tonight. Just as photographic art differs from the stokes that create a watercolor, a film-maker approaches his subject differently than a writer. Since Mike and I met only after we had chosen the same subject and begun our work, I found it interesting to watch how we choose different facets of the Admiral’s life and personality to polish in order to best reflect the story we saw.

Nice work, Michael and Gina!

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Naval Undersea Warfare Center Division Newport (Rhode Island)



This week Captain Howard Goldman and his staff permitted me to talk about Admiral Rickover’s leadership and management style and the lessons for today.  I hope they enjoyed the ensuing discussion as much as I did.

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Naval War College Museum



John Kennedy at the Naval War College Museum in Newport,Rhode Island, sponsors a luncheon “Eight Bells” discussions.  They are reportedly held atop the very same boards trod by Alfred Thayer Mahan as he expounded the theories that would become The Influence of Sea Power upon History. 

Who could resist an offer to speak in such a locale?  Certainly not I. Therefore Thursday lunch was an enjoyable ninety minutes with local residents as well as some who had driven as many as several hours to attend one of John’s famous events.

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