West Point Admiral: Leadership Lessons from Four Decades of Military Service by Michael W. Shelton, Rear Admiral, Civil Engineer Corps, U.S. Navy (Ret) (Acclaim Press, 2022, 368 pages)
“How can you be a West Point graduate and a Navy admiral?” Mike Shelton has been asked that question many times throughout his life! Indeed, when Cadet Michael Shelton began his Plebe year at the United States Military Academy at West Point in 1963, he had no idea that four decades later he would retire from military service as a Rear Admiral in the US Navy. In West Point Admiral: Leadership Lessons from Four Decades of Military Service, Shelton outlines his military career beginning with West Point, the war in Vietnam, and through postings across the globe. Along the way, he witnessed firsthand the traits of good leadership―and bad―as he rose steadily through the ranks. Shelton provides his candid perspective on how the military has evolved through the years and the differences between Army/Navy philosophies, all while telling the story of his life in the service and his beloved US Navy Seabees.
When the lack of 20/20 eyesight prevented Michael Shelton from applying to the U.S. Naval Academy in the early 1960s, he ended up as a cadet at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. Nearing graduation, his class standing was likely to prohibit him from gaining a commission into the prestigious Army Corps of Engineers. Shelton’s father served in the Navy during WWII, and eventually retired as a Master Chief, making Shelton eligible to request a commission into the Navy, rather than the Army. Shelton’s request was approved and in July 1967 he graduated from West Point and commissioned as an Ensign in the U.S. Navy’s Civil Engineer Corps (CEC).
The meat of the book follows Shelton’s active-duty career as he moves from billet to billet, getting promoted, and dealing with bigger leadership challenges. His career includes assignments with the Civil Engineer Corps (CEC), tours in the Naval Construction Force, known as the Seabees, spending time in the Naval Mobile Construction Battalion (NMCB), as well as an Amphibious Construction Battalion (ACB). He also served tours with Naval Facilities Engineering Command (NAVFAC) and various other command and staff tours, ultimately retiring as a two-star admiral after nearly forty years of service.
Shelton’s introduction to the Navy started with a deployment to Vietnam in late 1967 with Naval Mobile Construction Battalion Nine (NMCB-9) just a couple of months before North Vietnam’s Tet Offensive in 1968. He explains to the reader what a Seabee Battalion is and does, providing his honest assessment of his leaders, peers, subordinates, and the situations they faced. He also provides the perspective of a Navy Staff Corps officer working for and working with Navy Line Officers (such as surface warfare officers, submariners, and aviators). It’s a great example of an individual reporting to a navy command and having to figure out how they fit into the big picture and make the command better.
West Point Admiral has something to offer everyone. At one level, it provides a tremendous insight into what it means to be a leader, to treat others with respect, and how to evaluate a new situation and make positive changes. Shelton focuses on the fundamentals of leadership, such as setting expectations up front, holding people accountable for their actions, while always taking care of them.
Shelton shares many examples of what good and bad leadership looks like in action and highlights lessons he learned along the way. He discusses many decisions he made throughout his career, and his justification for making them. These honest, opinionated discussions about decision-making are very interesting and can be insightful for those seeking to learn from others.
The book also provides insight into the Navy’s Civil Engineer Corps and Naval Construction Forces for those who want to learn more about them. I highly recommended it for those in the CEC or who want to join, and for all who want to be leaders in the Naval Construction Force.
Stephen Lepper served 21 years on Active Duty with the U.S. Navy’s Civil Engineer Corps. He lives with his family in central Massachusetts and is always on the lookout for what to read next. You can connect with him on LinkedIn at https://www.linkedin.com/in/stephen-lepper.