Are you Communicating your Leadership?

Leadership CommunicationGeneral Robert E. Lee was one of the most skilled and beloved leaders America has ever produced. He was Abraham Lincoln’s first choice to lead the Union Army before Lee’s home state of Virginia seceded from the Union. During the Civil War he consistently led the Confederate Army to victory against Union forces, despite the North’s superior numbers and resources. The love his soldiers had for him was the stuff of legend.

Lee was a great leader.

However, on July 1st, 1863, as the lead elements of his army encountered and engaged the vanguard of the Union Army near a small town called Gettysburg, a lack of clear communication neutralized his tactical genius. And the results were disastrous.

As Lee approached the ensuing battle, he immediately recognized the key terrain beyond the town: high ground that commanded the surrounding landscape. A soldier’s soldier, Lee instinctively knew he had to deny this ground to his enemy. So he sent a message to his lead commander, General Ewell, to “take that hill, if practicable.”

At the end of the day, General Ewell did not think securing the heights was “practicable.” Though he drove the Union forces out of the town, he left them the high ground and they leveraged it over the next two days to defeat the Confederates.

Lee had immediately discerned what needed to happen, but failed to communicate the importance of why it must be done. That failure may have cost him the battle, and in the end, the war.

Contrast that with Colonel Strong Vincent, a Union soldier whose brigade occupied the extreme left flank of the Federal line on the second day of the battle. He left no room for doubt when he issued orders to his subordinate regimental commander, Colonel Joshua Chamberlain. He made sure Chamberlain knew that his unit was the end of the Union line. If he failed, the Confederates would take the whole Army from behind. Vincent ordered him to “hold that ground at all hazards.”

Chamberlain and his 20th Maine held their ground in a stunning battle I wrote about here.

Knowing what to do is not enough. To be effective, you must be able to communicate your leadership clearly and passionately.

How have you seen communication help or hinder leaders?

14 thoughts on “Are you Communicating your Leadership?”

  1. Geoff,

    Being from Maine, the minor character in your post is a person of interest to me. Not to negate the main point of your post. I just wanted to mention I’m originally from Maine which makes me a Mainiac.

    Success to you,

    Dan

  2. I would add that while Colonel Vincent made the ‘why’ absolutely clear (if you do not hold the line here we will be defeated) it was a failure of Lee in that he did not explain ‘why’ he felt the heights were critical. Leaders explain why – allowing their team to decide how.

    1. Excellent point, James.

      Personally, I think Lee was used to issuing orders to General Stonewall Jackson, who died earlier that year. I believe Jackson would have taken that order (“take the hill, if practicable”), seen through Lee’s Virginian propriety, and taken the hill.

      Ewell, on the other hand, was new to command, unsure of himself, and overly cautious.

      Regardless, you’re right, the “why” is the one thing we as leaders can not assume people understand.

      1. Too true, James.

        I can attest to the importance of telling an employee why and it doesn’t just relate to combat situations.

        When I first went to work as the assistant to a truly remarkable woman it was routine to not be given the why. In her eyes, because I was an unknown quantity, I wasn’t trusted. With a lot of time and effort on my part I eventually earned the trust but it wasn’t easy because, without the why I had no context and was therefore forced to conjecture the reason for doing the task, which made for a not always successful outcome to the process, which in turn made me look inept. Optics aside, had I known the why I would have been able to (1) have a better initial outcome and (2) do the job in less time. A frame of reference goes a long way toward allowing someone lay the proper groundwork and do a better and more efficient job.

        Norah

        P.S. If being from Maine makes Dan a Maniac, I guess coming from Oxford Mills would make me an Oxford Millionaire!

  3. Geoff
    This is very well written post. Loved the history and leadership lesson. Leader’s need to be clear in communicating. I believe good communication is what separates good leaders from great ones.

    This is an area I am growing in and focusing on. Thank you for your post.

    Dan

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