March 2013

What Leaders Know

What skill sets do you and your leaders need to succeed? Can you articulate those needs clearly? Does everyone know what they are? What are you doing to enhance those skills in your organization?

Teams that participate in The Gettysburg Leadership Experience are often surprised at stories from that battle can help answer those questions. Among the stories I tell on the field, one of my favorites is about the aptly and interestingly named Colonel Strong Vincent, a twenty-six year old in command of some thirteen hundred Federal soldiers.

On the afternoon of July 2, when a massive Confederate force threatened to overrun the left flank of the Federal Army at a hill called Little Round Top, Vincent took charge of the situation. He decided there was no time to wait for instructions to trickle down from his boss; instead, he acted, moving his force into position just ahead of the final Rebel assault. Under tremendous pressure—the enemy was already attacking—and with only a fraction of the information he really needed, he formulated a simple plan and communicated that plan in crisp instructions. When a section of his line faltered and threatened to collapse, Vincent rushed to the breach and, by personal example, steadied his men. As I say in my remarks, "Vincent was at the top of his game, doing everything exactly right for those forty-five minutes that the Republic so needed him." He was mortally wounded that afternoon and died a few days later.

Vincent is a great illustration of this shorthand definition of leadership: he knew his stuff; he knew his people, and he knew himself.

He knew his stuff. Vincent was a lawyer by training, but by 1863—after only two years as a volunteer—he had immersed himself in the technical aspects of soldiering. Thus, in a few harried minutes he was able to make an accurate assessment of the battle situation, formulate a workable plan and communicate that plan to his team.

He knew his people. When part of his dangerously thin line threatened to give way under the tremendous Confederate assault, Vincent knew his men would respond to his personal example. He thrust himself into a position that at least some of the soldiers had decided was indefensible, showing them that he believed that, together, they could hold.

He knew himself. Vincent had contracted malaria in an earlier campaign and had been offered a desk job. He turned it down, stating simply, "I came to fight." He wrote to his wife that, if he fell in battle, it was "for the most righteous cause that ever made a widow." That might sound like romantic hyperbole to our modern ears, but Vincent backed up his words with actions. When the critical moment came, he did not have to stop and wonder if this was a risk worth taking. He knew himself well enough already.

The Gettysburg Leadership Experience offers scores of lessons and, more importantly, insights into how we lead our modern organizations and how we can improve. Do I really know my stuff? My people? And, perhaps the biggest challenge, do I really know myself?

For more information on how the Gettysburg Leadership Experience can benefit your team, contact Dennis Haley or Ed Ruggero at Academy Leadership. Telephone 610-783-0630.