Book Review: Sailing True North

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I really wanted to like Sailing True North: 10 Admirals and The Voyage of Character by James Stavridis. I didn’t. A good editor might have saved it.

In the preface, Admiral Stavridis says,

“I hope to illuminate for the reader the most essential qualities of character, demonstrate how they contribute to effective leadership, and make the case, that by using this information, each of us can chart a course toward becoming the best we can possibly be within our own lives.”

I don’t think he succeeded. Here’s why.

The title is Sailing True North: 10 Admirals and The Voyage of Character. I expected this would be vignettes which illustrated how each of the 10 admirals developed character. The book doesn’t do that.

The chapters are short treatments of the life of each of the admirals followed by analysis of their lives. Stavridis talks about character, but there’s no “voyage.”  There’s no arc to this book. It’s a collection of biographical vignettes arranged in chronological order.

The prose is awful. It’s academic. There are loads of subordinate clauses and lots of commas. That may not be the author’s fault.

I’m a book-writing coach and developmental editor. From that vantage point, this looks like it might be a draft that wasn’t subjected to a good edit.

A developmental edit would have created a structure and through-line that made the book more coherent. He or she would certainly have caught and fixed some of the issues with references and explanations. Here are two examples.

In the preface, Admiral Stavridis says, “As I will say again in this work, character is what you do when you think no one is looking.” He never says that again.

He says General Tony Zinni is a hero and role model. That’s great but there are no examples of why. Stavridis quotes Grace Hopper as saying that “building the compiler” was one of her most important achievements. Her vignette doesn’t mention the feat or why it was important.

A copy edit would have cleaned up some phrasing. We might have read that “Drake was a pirate.,” not that he was “operating in a most piratical manner.” We’re told that Alfred Thayer Mahan’s father was “a figure of stentorian authority.”

In A Nutshell

There’s not much in this book about the voyage of character. What there is, is smothered in academic, pretentious prose. References are poorly done. Explanations of important things are sketchy or lacking altogether.

If you want to learn about the admirals discussed here, find other books about them.

You can check out some of my highlights and notes from this book on my GoodReads page.


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