General 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?