Lessons in Leadership: Stephen Decatur

By: Christine Hughes, Historian, Naval History and Heritage Command 

Editor’s note: ‘Why We Do What We Do’ is an initiative CNO Richardson asked the Naval History and Heritage Command to help share with the fleet. Each month, our historians will dissect a seminal moment in our Navy’s past and then highlight the lessons we learned. The purpose, is to ground today’s Sailors in their history and heritage by explaining the reasons behind some of today’s seemingly mundane or routine activities and actions.

Decatur in a gray sketch wearing an informal hat.

Sketch by Fred S. Cozzens, copied from his book Our Navy Its Growth and Achievements, 1897. It depicts Decatur informally dressed, circa 1804, during the time of the War with Tripoli. Naval History and Heritage Command Photograph.

Leadership is a hard word to describe because it takes on many different styles and is rooted in one’s ability to rouse equal parts respect and action among peers. Luckily, Navy leaders today “stand on the shoulders of giants” and have many mentors from whom they can draw inspiration. Also fortunately, the CNO’s Design for Maintaining Maritime Superiority 2.0 details what he expects of all his Sailors—to lead with Integrity, Accountability, Initiative and Toughness. When looking at examples of the past to illustrate that distinct leadership style, one man stands out among others: Stephen Decatur. Below, we take you back to 1804 when Decatur shaped the basis of the CNO’s Core Attributes and became the leader the Navy needed.

The Burning of Philadelphia

In 20 minutes of action, with 75 men, LT Stephen Decatur set an exemplary example for today’s Sailors. During the early 1800s, just after America had won its independence, we were fighting a new enemy: the Tripolitan pirates of the northern coast of Africa in the First Barbary War. After the Barbary sailors took command of USS Philadelphia, the Navy initiated a mission to regain our nation’s honor and deny the enemy their ill-gotten trophy. Under the direction of Commodore Edward Preble, the Mediterranean Squadron’s CO, Decatur volunteered to destroy Philadelphia, thus keeping the ship out of the hands of the Tripolitans.

Given the importance of the mission, it’s critical to ask “why Decatur?” There were many able leaders at the time, some with more experience, but Decatur had something special. Below we link Decatur’s actions then, with the Core Attributes of today’s Navy:

Want to know more about Decatur’s actions during the burning of Philadelphia? Click here.

  • Integrity: His conduct was honorable and he consistently sought to better the organization, and his men, through his actions and behavior. When Preble assigned the dangerous mission to Decatur, all the men to join him were volunteers – they willingly raised their hand, knowing the risk, because they trusted Decatur and valued his leadership. Simply put, Decatur’s integrity made these men eager to follow him into battle.
  • Oil panting showing the frigate Philidelphia buring, fire and smoke showing.

    Burning of the Frigate Philadelphia in the Harbor of Tripoli, February 16, 1804. Oil on canvas, 60 by 42, by Edward Moran (1829-1901)

    Toughness: To carry out the mission, surprise was critical. A large vessel would clearly raise suspicion, so, Decatur packed a small ketch, a vessel meant for 20-30 men, with 75. In this crowded space, on the high seas, rats and lice joined the Sailors. Gale-force winds forced the Sailors to endure the cramped, filthy spaces for even longer. What made the difference? Decatur’s toughness. He embodied the necessary fighting spirit and resilience necessary to complete the mission. His strength earned him the steadfast support of his men, even under the worst conditions.

  • Initiative: During combat, plans change; it’s true today and it was true in 1804. The responsibility to accomplish the mission is enormous and we need leaders to keep an open mind to those changes and act when necessary. On the night of February 15, as he entered the Tripoli Harbor, Decatur decided to postpone the attack because he needed more information. Then, despite not having the planned-for assistance of the crew from a weather-delayed vessel, Decatur attacked. He gathered the information he had available to him, took ownership for the mission’s success, and acted boldly.
  • Accountability: During times of duress, it’s easy to let our standards slide, to give our self a pass. But as an organization, in order to be a premier fighting force, we must do the hard things; we must maintain the highest standards even through hardship. During the raid to destroy Philadelphia, Decatur and his men methodically set fires, fore and aft, on the American frigate. With smoke and fire surrounding his men as they escaped the burning frigate for the safety of their ketch, many of the crew became mesmerized by the flames and overlooked their perilous situation. Decatur chastised them for their rowdiness. He ordered his crew to stay calm and focus on the mission, while still in danger. He threatened to ‘cut down’ the first man that was noisy. His standards didn’t change, even in a changing environment. Decatur remained steadfast in his accountability.

To better understand Decatur and the mission in Tripoli, read our historical summary here. In the summary, you will better understand how Decatur’s character paired perfectly with the mission of our early Navy and our Navy today.

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