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By Joe Naughton-Travers, Ed.M.

This week we wrapped up The 2017 OPEN MINDS Executive Leadership Retreat where I had the opportunity to hear about the historic Battle of Gettysburg from renowned historian and guide, Terry Fox, in the session and battle field tour session, Strategic Decisionmaking In Times Of Change – Colonel Joshua Chamberlain & Little Round Top: Defending The Union Line.

The lesson for retreat attendees was how to lead in dire circumstances with incredibly high stakes – something today’s executive can identify with as they work to keep their organization sustainable in the face of mounting market pressures. At the Battle of Gettysburg, Lt. Colonel Joshua Chamberlain and the few hundred soldiers in his 20th Maine Regiment were sent to Little Round Top on the second day of the battle where they held the Union flank and played one of the pivotal roles in winning the battle, and eventually the war, for the Union. (For a great deep dive into this day, check out Chamberlain At Gettysburg: Lessons In Decisive Leadership.) This historic case study illustrated two essential lessons for students of history: protect the high ground and protect the end of the line.

Every time I revisit this history lesson, I see so much that leaders can learn through a close examination of Chamberlain’s leadership during the Battle of Gettysburg. His choices and his words won the battle of the day. I have five simple takeaways from this leadership case study that I think are important for health and human service executives to keep in mind as they face the challenges of a changing market:

1. Leadership Skills Matter – Chamberlain was a skilled leader that was able to execute a battle plan and inspire his troops to follow his command. To be a successful, executives need to employ both transactional and transformational leadership skills. Transactional leadership is an equitable exchange or transactional process between leader and followers based on the self-interests of both; transformational leaders engage followers beyond their self-interests by arousing and satisfying higher order needs, such the need to help others, or the need for accomplishment. Transformational leaders inspire, support, and nurture; they help us achieve the impossible. Transactional leaders teach us how to manage every step along the way; they help us make it happen. But as Monica Oss discussed yesterday, in today’s market, executives need competencies that extend beyond transactional and transformational leadership (see Moving Leadership From Complicated To Complex). As the market evolves, leadership skills must evolve as well.

2. Market Intelligence & Trends Are Essential To Strategy – For Chamberlain at the Battle of Gettysburg, his knowledge of the geography and the enemies’ battle routes was essential to ensuring successs. Likewise, leaders need to constantly pay attention to the external world – with an eye on both what is happening and what is likely to happen in the future. Building a strategy and making decisions about market positioning is impossible without a thorough understanding of national and local trends; changing payer financing models and performance requirements; evolving consumer expectations; and the new competition your organization will face.

3. Don’t Get Too Comfortable – Leader of the Confederate army, General Robert E. Lee’s mistakes in Gettysburg seem to be two-fold: a cocky confidence stemming from previous successes on the battlefield and a belief that a repetition of previous tactics over and over would be successful. Confidence is important in leadership, but doing the same thing only because it worked in the past is a grave mistake. The market is evolving at a pace that many leaders are struggling to keep up with – value-based reimbursement, a growing preference for community-based care, new models for integrated care management, new performance requirements, consumer and payer preference for emerging technologies. These changes have remade the health and human service market and strategies and services that may have been successful just a few years ago will probably not be successful in a different environment.

4. Communication Is The Basic Foundation Of Leadership – In battle, communication is about being very clear, specific, and confirming intent. In our offices, communication is about listening to staff, providing clear and direct feedback, and making the organization’s strategy understood. Leaders are willing to repeat, rephrase, assure understanding, and take time to understand the feedback they are given. There needs to be clear, specific, and confirming intent, as well as listening, providing instruction, and pivoting the message to make sure people understand (see Communicate Like A Leader).

5. Value Your Team – Chamberlain had the admiration and respect of his troops; he not only inspired them, but he also led the bloody bayonet charge down the hill at Little Round Top to ensure that the Union line was held. Good leaders care about their staff and are willing to do what it takes to make sure they are supported professionally and personally. A team that feels valued and respected will be willing to stand with their leader and do whatever it takes to move their organization forward.

One of the great quotes I heard this week, was from Colonel William Calvin Oates of  the Confederate States Army, lamenting the loss at Little Round Top, and subsequently Gettysburg:

[Chamberlain’s] skill and persistency and the great bravery of his men saved Little Round Top and the Army of the Potomac from defeat. [Otherwise] we would have completely turned the flank and have won Little Round Top… great events sometimes turn on comparatively small affairs.

My takeaway – never underestimate the decisions you make today because they seem small. In hindsight, you may recognize that greater concentration and leadership in the moment could have turned your whole strategy, opened opportunities, and delivered success.

For more great coverage from The 2017 OPEN MINDS Executive Leadership Retreat, check out The CEO Compensation Divide, Collaboration, Connectivity & Complex Leadership, Disruption (& Strategic Planning) Come To The I/DD Space, and Leadership Lesson #1 – Don’t Be Surprised!. For more on developing your leadership skills in technology, join me on November 7 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania at The 2017 OPEN MINDS Technology & Informatics Institute where I will be joined by Minky (Nishtarini) Kernacs, Data Architect, Philadelphia Department of Behavioral Health and Intellectual disAbility Services for the session, Moving From Big Data To Smart Data: How To Integrate Clinical & Financial Data To Manage Performance.

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