What Civilians Can Learn from Military Leaders
I was delighted to see Harvard Business Review spotlight military leadership skills in its November 2010 edition.
First, the United States’ military services have been the best leadership laboratories in the world because they have been teaching leadership development longer than any corporate enterprise.
Second, civilians can learn much from the military where transformational leadership has been the norm rather than the exception for the past 30 years.
Third, directors of executive leadership programs have awakened to the fact that civilians can gain by engaging military leaders in dialogue and using experiential exercises like visits to major military battlefields such as Gettysburg and Antietam to see similarities between civilian and military situations.
Military Leadership Begins with Teaching Character
Military leadership has taught that the character of a leader is essential to success. In Leaders and Battles: The Art of Military Leadership, W. J. Wood described five traits of an effective leader: Will, intellect, courage, presence, and energy. Yet, the character of the leader underpins all these traits. Character is defined by the values one chooses to put into action, which is the essence of leadership, regardless of the situation.
Leadership begins with a capital “C”
In a March 2002 article in Harvard Management Update, Kathy Jordan rightly concluded that character trumps everything, including training. The five character traits Wood defined have separated victors from losers time and again.
During my MBA course on leadership, my students analyze a clip of the movie Gettysburg (Scene 28) where the 20th Maine Volunteers, under the command of militia Colonel Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, are faced with a life-and-death situation at Little Round Top on July 2, 1863.
An Exceptional Case Study of the Best Citizen-General
My MBA students analyze Jeff Daniels’ accurate portrayal of Chamberlain’s leadership style as a study of character in action. They examine how Chamberlain must employ emotionally intelligent leadership skills in response to his people and the situation.
The 20th Maine was in a predicament. Having repulsed numerous Confederate attempts to take Little Round Top, the men were now out of ammunition.
Retreat was not an option because the Confederate forces could flank Union lines, almost guaranteeing a Union defeat and Lee’s Army running to Washington, which would have changed the course of the Civil War.
In a critical defining moment, Chamberlain showed the depth of his character by ordering and leading a bayonet charge down the hill, an action that literally ensured a Union victory.
For his bravery and leadership, Chamberlain received the Congressional Medal of Honor.
Effective Leadership Begins with the Character of the Leader
We study leaders to understand their decision-making, but we should scrutinize those decisions through the lens of character.
We study military leaders to understand the strength of character required in facing adversity, but we should do it more to understand the critical nature of character in ensuring success. Effective leaders know what must be done, demonstrate the five critical traits, and refuse to succumb to temptations for personal gain.
Since character trumps everything else, leadership truly begins with one’s Character-with a capital “C.”!