Health and human service executives must face any number of big challenges throughout the course of their career. It’s safe to say, however, that few will ever find themselves in a literal life-and-death situation, with bullets whistling all around and a determined enemy army charging at them.
Attendees at The 2016 OPEN MINDS Executive Leadership Retreat in Gettysburg last month got a window into what it’s like to lead in dire circumstances with incredibly high stakes. Each day of the event featured a tour of significant sites from the three-day battle, arguably the most important of the U.S. Civil War.
I took part in the middle session, Colonel Chamberlain & Decisionmaking In Times Of Change: How To Make The Best Strategic Decisions For Your Organization. That presentation included a field trip out to Little Round Top, a small hill south of downtown Gettysburg that marked one end of the Union battle line on the second and third days of fighting. This location was critical for two reasons: First, whichever side held the hill had the high ground of the battlefield and would be able to fire cannons farther from that position. Second, if the Confederate forces could maneuver around that end of the line, there was a good chance they’d be able to cut off the Union’s entire Army of the Potomac and force its commanding officer, General George Meade, to surrender. And if that happened, General Robert E. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia would have encountered little resistance in the march to Washington, D.C., thereby ending the war with a victory for the South.
With the fate of the nation hinging on this small site, then-Lt. Colonel Joshua Chamberlain and the few hundred soldiers in his 20th Maine Regiment were rushed to Little Round Top on the afternoon of July 2, 1863, as part of a larger force. When they arrived, he immediately had them build crude fortifications out of large rocks on the hilltop. They stopped after just a few minutes, though, because hundreds of Confederate fighters emerged from woods at the base of the hill and began a frenzied attack.
Suffice to say, in the short period of time that followed, the 20th Maine bore the brunt of repeated assaults, Lt. Colonel Chamberlain received a serious wound in the leg, and the soldiers ran out of ammunition in defense of the hill. Despite all of those challenges, he ordered his men to fix bayonets and charge downhill from two directions at the attacking force. This bold move caught the Confederates by surprise, and they surrendered shortly afterward. It’s not an exaggeration to say that his decisions saved the Army of the Potomac, and the United States as a single, unified country.
There are multiple lessons here (and I would suggest that anyone wanting to learn more about leadership should closely examine Lt. Colonel Chamberlain’s heroic and decisive actions at Gettysburg). There are three in particular that have relevance to today’s shifting landscape.
1. Never Lose Sight Of The Strategy
The soldiers of the 20th Maine Regiment sustained heavy casualties and risked death repeatedly over the course of that afternoon and evening because Chamberlain understood — and clearly explained to them — the strategic significance of the hill. Had this been a minor skirmish of no larger consequence, Chamberlain and his men might not have been willing to endure so much. They could have retreated to avoid putting their lives on the line for a small hill with little value. But they were aware of the consequences of giving it up, and therefore prepared to sacrifice more. Similarly, many employees in health and human service organizations will happily put in discretionary effort if they understand how what they’re working on fits into the big picture.
2. Make The Most Of The Resources You Have
When his soldiers ran out of ammunition, Chamberlain realized they couldn’t continue to defend the hill as they had been. But he knew they still had two things: bayonets and fighting spirit. Equipped with those, he ordered a counterattack that overwhelmed the remaining Confederate forces, thereby protecting Little Round Top from further onslaughts.
3. Be Quick Or Be Dead
Speed is generally a significant advantage in developing and rolling out plans, particularly in environments that change quickly. That’s true of the health and human service field, just as it was true for Chamberlain. Arriving at Little Round Top, he immediately got his soldiers to create new fortifications and add to existing ones — a timely action, as Confederates were attacking within five minutes. At the very least, his snap decision saved several of his men’s lives, and it possibly won the battle and war for the United States.
In short, be guided by a strategy that maximizes your current resources and advantages — and be quick about it.
Want more on how to successfully lead your organization? Read these articles from the OPEN MINDS Industry Library:
- A Leader’s Success – The Right Strategy, Implemented
- Courage Is A Must For Leaders In Times Of Change
- Are You Prepared To Lose Your CEO?
And be sure to mark your calendars now for The 2017 OPEN MINDS Executive Leadership Retreat, which will take place in Gettysburg on September 26-28, 2017.