21st Century Sims: Innovation, Education, and Leadership for the Modern Era

21st Century Sims: Innovation, Education, and Leadership for the Modern Era ed. Benjamin F. Armstrong. W. W. Norton, 2015, 162 pp.

Within six chapters through an historic lens, editor Benjamin Armstrong brings together essays examining how education, innovation, and leadership are just as crucial to our collective roles within the military services now as they were over a century ago. Armstrong is a naval officer and an assistant professor of war studies with the history department at the United States Naval Academy. 21st Century Sims: Innovation, Education, and Leadership for the Modern Era causes the reader to question the motivational factors for serving in the armed forces. With Armstrong’s critical voice, an engaged discussion occurs for the purpose of bettering our profession of arms. 

Bold is the individual who does not limit action to the common thought processes of the day. The qualities of innovation, education, and leadership are interwoven throughout an accounting of Sims as a naval professional. The story commences at the beginning of the twentieth century as the reader is introduced to William Sims, a US Navy lieutenant who just completed a staff assignment. The historic narrative depicts Sims as a man who valued innovation and creativity to further the profession of arms and as a result is viewed by his seniors as a rebel.

Sims possessed extraordinary traits that furthered the advancement of US naval power. He fought through the status quo with a gritty determination to gain a deeper understanding of what may be accomplished within the realm of the possible combined with the vision to see things that others miss are notable examples. Armstrong covered these traits well, using stories of Sims’ experiences to illustrate lessons learned for the purpose of acting as a primer to continue creating advancements within the profession of arms through the extraordinary individuals of today.

Armstrong’s work demonstrates innovation occurring within an environment of supporting characters at all stages of bureaucratic hierarchy. Innovation within the military often does not occur through accident but, as Armstrong argues, by junior members offering constructive dissent and challenging the system with the crucial assistance from open-minded and supportive bosses. Innovation is the execution of creativity. The author poses a relevant and valid point: it is simply not enough for professionals to generate ideas without the difficult task of studying a subject through rigorous research.    

The second main theme regarding the importance of education easily translates throughout the book. Sims’ endeavors were focused on teaching peers and subordinates how to improve processes by applying new ideas to current practices. It appears to the reader that Sims’ leadership style is transformative. He valued bestowing ideas through academic writing for others to first comprehend and later implement.

The importance of a leader getting many views on an issue before making a decision that will affect personal lives and organizations was one of the many leadership lessons drawn out through Sims’ lived experiences. Armstrong praises Sims for his thoughts on the power of ideas and his prescient vision of how an area of weakness could be transformed into an advantage by adapting tactics, techniques, and procedures through applied leadership. A strength of the book includes the concept that individuals do not necessarily need to fit into a preconceived leadership model nor style at any level of a hierarchical organization. Followers of Sims found his leadership style effective. As opposed to highlighting famous leaders to illustrate specific points, Sims’ efforts reached a deeper level of follower commitment through relatable and personal examples.   

For those seeking to become better leaders or for educators teaching leadership concepts, 21st Century Sims: Innovation, Education, and Leadership for the Modern Era is certainly worthy of a spot on the bookshelf. Through rich detail in the historic accounting of Sims’ trials and tribulations, Armstrong demonstrates a potential alternate reality of how the might of the military may have been insufficient during periods of war had it not been for Sims’ innovation and the leadership of that era who were willing to accept risk from an individual who is different from the norm. Although Sims was considered a rebel, his courage to speak truth to power was crucial to succeeding in war and developing future military minds for future conflict. The reader may apply these concepts to achieve a deeper level of professionalism and transform the workforce into a more effective learning organization.

Maj David J. Kritz, PhD, USAF



"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."

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