This short-series of posts coincides with the Command, Leadership and Management phase of the ACSC. In it, members of the Department reflect upon aspects of the leadership, broadly defined.
Rarely has an individual whose most famous achievements came in the realm of military administration captured the historical imagination in the manner of Admiral Sir John ‘Jacky’ Fisher. Yet despite the fact that was not a fighting admiral of any note, Fisher has come to bestride our appreciation on the Royal Navy in the early twentieth century. Indeed it is not uncommon to see the entire period of British naval history referred to as the ‘Fisher Era’.
Fisher’s place in history was confirmed by his role in the design and construction of the eponymous battleships HMS Dreadnought in 1905-06. The largest, fastest and most heavily gunned warship afloat when she was launched, Dreadnought lent her name to the class of ships which followed – the grey ‘castles of steel’ which secured British control of the world’s oceans during the First World War.
‘Radical Jack’ was certainly an influential and important feature in British naval policy in this period, but arguably not to the extent that popular accounts would allow. He provoked bitter disputes within the Service and left the Admiralty resentful at the lack of political support he received in 1910. However his very ubiquity in our understanding of the period reveals a pivotal facet of his success – his style.
For Fisher, style was not something used to obscure a lack of substance – it was an important tool in a leader’s arsenal in and of itself. He purposefully distinguished himself from other, more reserved, officers by adopting an increasingly distinctive, flamboyant manner as he rose through the ranks. Whether strengthening his voice by shouting gunnery commands whilst marching through the South Downs as a young lieutenant in HMS Warrior, or dancing the waltz with the Duchess of Hamilton at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919 aged 78, Fisher developed a unique ability to captivate an audience. He knew appearances mattered and he capitalized upon the fact, using image and style to reform the Service and as a weapon against rival powers.
Fisher’s presentation was an important factor in his rise to the position of First Sea Lord – particularly his ability to articulate defence issues within their broader political and economic context. During the financially chastened years after the Boer War, he campaigned tirelessly for reforms that he hoped would reduce spending overall spending on the military. In doing so he combined professional expertise with political nous. Whilst ostensibly avoiding comment on the Army’s budget – a topic he claimed to mentioned only with ‘great diffidence’ – Fisher bombarded the Prime Minister with proposals to reduce the naval and military estimates to ‘60 millions sterling instead of 84 millions sterling, combined with a Navy 30 per cent stronger and an Army 50 per cent more effective: this means eightpence off the Income tax!’ By augmenting his professional competence with political savvy and persuasive argumentation, Fisher rose to head the Service.
He gained leverage by consciously depicting himself as a radical, reforming figure, forming a carefully cultivated public and political image in order to win and maintain support. By stressing his progressive qualities he sought to distance himself from more conservative officers – whom he could present as antediluvian reactionaries – thereby increasing his influence in political circles. He often mischaracterized his actual opinions in doing so. Thus, whilst pronouncing that ‘history is a record of exploded ideas!’ in order to stress the ‘revolutionary’ impact of new weapons like the submarine, he simultaneously sought the counsel and assistance of the noted historian Julian Corbett on important Admiralty business.
His awareness of the importance of perception and imagine was reflected in his flexible attitude towards the press. Fisher cultivated contacts with journalists throughout his career and regularly distributed official material marked ‘very secret’ with half-meant entreaties to ‘burn’ scrawled across them to sympathetic commentators. As a Captain he had helped ferment a major navy scare in the mid-1880s by collaborating with a newspaper journalist and the experience proved instructive. Once Fisher arrived as First Sea Lord the military correspondent of The Times remarked upon ‘Sir John’s semi-confidential manifestos printed for the advantage of the press’. He was right to highlight the Fisher’s unorthodox methods. But by developing a supportive press Fisher buttressed his position and bested a number of opponents. As he justified in 1908 ‘unless I had arranged to get the whole force of public opinion to back up the Naval Revolution, it would have been simply impossible to have it carried through successfully’.
Fisher also employed symbolism and rhetoric against potential foreign opponents. In some respects the visual impact of the Dreadnought – the physical manifestation of British industrial, financial and imperial might – was more significant than her military capabilities. Fisher ‘rubbed in’ this fact as much as possible, emphasizing her superiority over enemy vessels. He did so as part of his broader strategy of deterrence. Recognising that preventing war was far cheaper than fighting it, he viewed the military instrument as a vital tool in ‘peace strategy’. By making ‘wild statements’ about the Navy’s capacity to crush the German Fleet in 1905-06, Fisher underlined to the Germans how ill-advised they would be to provoke war. Indeed, on occasion his rhetoric even got the better of judgment. Reflecting back on a series of bloodthirsty statements he had made at the Hague Peace Conference of 1899, he admitted that ‘perhaps I went a little too far when I said I would boil the prisoners in oil and murder the innocent in cold blood etc., etc., etc.’ but his words had the desired affect – delegates left the event under no illusion that the Royal Navy was prepared to defend British interests.
In reality Fisher was a more considered, calculating leader than some of his more wild pronouncements would suggest. An excellent judge of character, he attracted many of the leading lights of the service to him, sponsoring the careers of
future First Sea Lords Francis Bridgeman, Prince Louis of Battenberg, and John Jellicoe and also Maurice Hankey RM – Secretary to the Committee of Imperial Defence after 1912. He also listened to the views of this ‘Fishpond’ of supporters, accepting modifications to his judgments and policies.
What Fisher’s example underlines is the power of perception as a tool in a leader’s arsenal. Fisher used image to secure personal advancement, support, and also as a weapon against potential enemies. This fed into his views on strategy – where he sought purposefully to exert pressure on areas the enemy felt to be particularly vulnerable. Herein lay the rationale behind his claim that the Navy was ready to ‘Copenhagen’ the German Fleet in 1905-06 and his desire to operate in the Baltic after 1914. Fisher’s bluster certainly made him many enemies and contributed to his downfall in both 1910 and 1915, but it also made him the effective political operator he was. A further, unintended side effect –which would doubtlessly have appealed to Fisher – has been to immortalize him as the epitome of the Navy he so loved.
Image: Fisher in December 1915, via wikimedia commons.