Three Leadership Lessons From Pearl Harbor

by | Dec 7, 2020


Today is December 7th. On this day in 1941, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, a naval base in Hawaii. 2,403 Americans were killed and 1,178 were injured. 19 ships were destroyed.

The following day, FDR addressed a joint session of Congress and requested a declaration of war against Japan. He opened his speech by saying “Yesterday, December 7, 1941, a date which will live in infamy, the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan.” Here’s a link to the speech: FDR Address.

Below are three leadership lessons from the Pearl Harbor attack

1. Expect the Unexpected

The week prior to the Pearl Harbor attack Army and Navy played their annual football game. “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. After the Pearl Harbor attack, battleships were no longer the centerpiece of the 20th-century Navy. Source.

The unexpected happens all the time. It is important for leaders to question their assumptions and not read too much into what has never happened or has always happened in the past. What sort of sacred cows do you believe in that might not be as sacrosanct as you think?

2. Silver Linings Exist Even Within Tragedy

Shortly after the Pearl Harbor attacks, Admiral Chester Nimitz was put in command of the U.S. Pacific Fleet. A few weeks later upon touring the damage wrought by the attack he noted three huge mistakes the Japanese had made.

First, they attacked on a Sunday when most sailors were on shore leave. Had the attack occurred on another day the fatalities would have been many times higher.

Second, the Japanese focused on destroying the ships but didn’t target the dry docks where ships could be repaired. Had they bombed the dry docks, repairable ships would have needed to be towed to the mainland for repair.

Third, the fuel supply for the planes and ships was kept in tanks above ground a few miles from the base. Had the Japanese bombed the fuel supply it would have been a big blow to the ability to use Pearl Harbor as a forward base in the Pacific. Source.

Admiral Nimitz displayed great leadership in pointing out how the Pearl Harbor attack could have been much worse as it buoyed his troops and showed that the enemy was not invincible. When we are confronted with bad news or defeat, finding silver linings can boost morale and provide a dose of needed optimism.

3. A Battle is Not the War

The attack on Pearl Harbor was a decisive victory for Japan. But winning a battle is not the same as winning the war. As noted by Japanese Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, “I fear all we have done is to awaken a sleeping giant and fill him with a terrible resolve.”* As we all know, America quickly and effectively marshaled its resources, our citizens pulled together, and along with our allies, we won World War II.

Setbacks and losses happen but they don’t mean that we have lost. Persistence is essential.

*note that the Admiral Yamamoto quote is from the movie Tora! Tora! Tora! and is likely apocryphal.


  1. I learned something useful from this, thanks for sharing and wish my American friends and colleagues well on this special day.

  2. Good reminders, plus thanks for reminding us of this special day!

  3. Great lessons John. Thank you.


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