What did John Paul Jones teach us about leadership?

by Sam on February 28, 2012

I have not yet begun to fight!

When asked if he was ready to give up, Commodore John Paul Jones said this during the famous battle between his Bonhomme Richard and the British Serapis on 23 September 1779. It seems that some of Jones’ men cried for surrender. Their fearless leader would hear nothing of the sort.

One of the first lessons to take away from his captaincy is that fright and insecurity have no place in the hearts of inspirational leaders.

The U.S. Naval Academy goes beyond this teaching to impart midshipmen with a philosophy of the leadership Jones believed in. It was drafted in 1900 by Augustus C. Buell, a devoted admirer. It is memorized by cadets and can be found on nearly very U.S. vessel as an encouragement to its crew.

We have divided the original statement into five sections, each of which speaks to a central leadership truth. (Section numbers are added for clarity.)

Qualifications of a Naval Officer


It is by no means enough that an officer of the Navy should be a capable mariner. He must be that, of course, but also a great deal more.

[What’s great about the opening sentence is its use of the word “capable” and not “skillful” or “outstanding”. Often, the most talented people at a particular task make the worst supervisors of others at that task. One reason is that they struggle to empathize with followers not as talented or as committed as they are. So when we identify so-called emerging leaders, it must be because they show us far more than excellence at the task we expect them to oversee.]


He should be as well a gentleman of liberal education, refined manners, punctilious courtesy, and the nicest sense of personal honor. He should be the soul of tact, patience, justice, firmness, kindness, and charity.

[According to Buell, John Paul Jones understood that emotional intelligence is the most fundamental building block of great leadership. This may be the most important quality to look for as we perform succession planning. It is certainly the most vital behavior to cultivate in our up-and-comers.]


No meritorious act of a subordinate should escape his attention or be left to pass without its reward, even if the reward is only a word of approval.

[Your employees want to know that they are making a difference. When they do, tell them. There may not be a more necessary—or more overlooked—gesture by people in charge than the giving of praise.]


Conversely, he should not be blind to a single fault in any subordinate, though at the same time, he should be quick and unfailing to distinguish error from malice, thoughtfulness from incompetency, and well meant shortcomings from heedless or stupid.

[The courage to deliver well-earned criticism is lacking in many leaders. Numerous others, who are willing, do it in a punishing way. Whatever camp you’re in, you’ll benefit by doing a search above on “constructive criticism”.]


In one word, every commander should keep constantly before him the great truth, that to be well obeyed, he must be perfectly esteemed.

[Graduates of our Leadership Academy highly prize this outcome of their studies. They are excited to transform into leaders who people want to follow.]

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Barry Werber 02.29.12 at 10:07 pm

Am enjoying information from my old class mate.

Leave a Comment

You can use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>