Book Review: To Risk It All

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I love military history. I bought To Risk It All: Nine Conflicts and the Crucible of Decision by Admiral James Stavridis because I’d read two of his earlier books, The Leaders Bookshelf and Sailing True North: 10 Admirals and the Voyage of Character. In other words, I was looking for a good read about a subject I like.

To Risk It All turned out to be a gem of a book. it was a great piece of military history. And it was also a superb book on decision-making under stress.

Admiral Stavridis tells nine compelling stories about difficult decisions in high-stakes situations. They’re in chronological order, from John Paul Jones to Captain Brett Crozier, that is from 1779 to 2021. The first four are about legendary Admirals and concentrate on the development of the Navy’s expectations about how leaders should act. The stories are about John Paul Jones, Stephen Decatur, David Farragut, and George Dewey.

The last five stories in the book are mostly about how specific leaders in specific situations made decisions within the framework of those expectations. They deal with some people you’ve probably heard of, like Bull Halsey and Richard Phillips. You’re less likely to be familiar with others, such as “Dorie” Miller, Lloyd Bucher, and Michelle Howard.

Admiral Stavridis is a first-rate storyteller. He helps you get inside the incidents he describes and tease out important lessons. He seasons his prose with examples from his own experience. They increase your insight but never become more important than the main story.

Beyond military history, this book is a penetrating analysis of decision-making under stress. The author does an excellent job of describing the pressures on the decision makers You understand the significance of the moment, the expectations of the Navy, and how a person’s individual life experience shaped the main decision.

The result is a view of high-stakes decision-making that isn’t oversimplified. The conclusion to the book is an excellent short treatise on decision-making under stress. I think the conclusion is worth the price of the book by itself.

In a Nutshell

To Risk It All it is worth your time if you like military history. It’s worth your time if you like reading good, true stories. Most of all, To Risk It All will help you improve your decision-making.

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