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From the Sea to the C-Suite

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From the Sea to the C-Suite

Lessons Learned from the Bridge to the Corner Office

Naval Institute,

15 min read
9 take-aways
Audio & text

What's inside?

A US Navy admiral who became a credit union CEO offers a concise handbook for leadership based on trust.

Editorial Rating



  • Concrete Examples
  • Engaging
  • Insider's Take


Having led at the highest levels in the US Navy and then served as president of the largest credit union in America, VADM Cutler Dawson brings a new perspective to the leadership genre. Dawson and co-author Taylor Baldwin Kiland assert that employees matter most and should come first, an idea that other well-regarded leadership authors also advocate. Dawson’s stories, drawn from experiences such as commanding a battle group in the Persian Gulf and intercepting a Soviet spy ship, aren’t quite the stuff of Tom Clancy, but they illustrate principles that will resonate with readers at any stage of their leadership career.


The US Navy prepares its leaders to assess risk, make decisions and accept responsibility.

The commanding officer (CO) aboard a US Navy ship at sea carries enormous autonomy and accountability. The principle, “unless otherwise directed” (UNODIR), grants a CO wide discretion in carrying out a ship’s mission. Commanding officers develop courage, humility, boldness and decision-making ability, because, often, they must take action and face risks without asking for permission from their superiors.

When author Cutler Dawson commanded the USS Molala in 1976, his ship tracked a Soviet spy vessel off the California coast. Dawson made the unprecedented decision to hail the Soviet ship and invite its captain onboard for lunch. The Russian officer conferred by radio with Moscow and declined. This difference between the United States’ and the USSR’s command protocols left an impression on Dawson. Having the trust and respect of his superiors boosted his confidence. Dawson understood that the trust and respect he showed his crew would have the same impact on them.

Cutler Dawson developed his core leadership principles during his career...

About the Authors

Cutler Dawson rose from junior lieutenant in the Navy to Vice Admiral, and became CEO of the United States’ biggest credit union, Navy Federal. 

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    R. E. 3 years ago
    Interesting perspective of putting employees first, and one worth thinking about. i suppose in the navy there isn't really a client - just a whole lot of employees at another organisation that have to be forced to comply. And if they don't - kill them. The Navy is probably the most critical of the 4 armed divisions as they get sea-lanes open and the trade flowing. A client in the form of national import/export industry, but not one who directly pays and you can put a finger on.