It ain’t as bad as you think. It will look better in the morning. ~Colin Powell
My recent article published at FIREFIGHTERNATION.
Lessons from history help us make decisions in the present and be ready for the future
By Billy Schmidt
Published Saturday, May 12, 2012
“We like to hear good stories retold. What is more interesting is our need to tell stories, again and again and again. Each telling helps us understand more about the lessons embedded in the story.” Gary Klein- Sources of Power: How People Make Decisions
What are the qualities of a good leader? What combination of experience and personal characteristics enable leaders to make rapid decisions during critical events? What processes do they use to make decisions with little information under extreme pressure?
Work on the fireground, like soldiering on the battlefield, demands an acute awareness of what’s happening, the ability to adapt to the changing situation, and the skill and will to be deliberate, decisive and fast. History provides timeless lessons from leaders who successfully made fast decisions under stress—decisions that made a difference.
Numerous books, articles and personal letters have been written detailing the complex and confusing aspects of both military battles and fireground incidents and examining the ways critical decisions were made. There are hundreds of movies and documentaries that depict these events, providing another medium through which to learn better decision-making.
Storytelling can be an effective learning tool that passes along wisdom and experience that others have obtained as part of a historical event. The stories allow the audience to experience a moment in history and can give them a sense of “being there when it happened.”
This FF-360 column is not just another article that simply tells a story. This column is the first of several in which we’ll take an imaginary “staff ride.” Staff rides, originally used by the 19th century Prussian Army and widely used by today’s military and wildfire professionals, are case studies conducted on the ground where the event happened. But in place of actually being there, we will experience historical events first-hand through stories delivered to stimulate our imagination. These historical stories, ranging from military events to fire incidents, will focus on decision-making lessons so that we can learn how to better lead during chaotic and stressful situations.
The story shared here features a Civil War battle and a pivotal decision made by a leader in the heat of the conflict that very likely changed the outcome of the Battle at Gettysburg.
Colonel Joshua Chamberlain and the Battle at Little Round Top
It’s July 2, 1863, and you’re near a little town in Pennsylvania called Gettysburg. It’s a hot, humid day and you find yourself witness to probably one of the greatest conflicts fought on American soil. On the first day of the three day battle at Gettysburg, only parts of the Union and Confederate Armies were engaged. But today, those armies will face difficult and deadly battles in the Peach Orchard and on the Round Tops. The decisions made by both sides will dramatically affect each army’s ability and motivation to continue. (See image 1)
You sit on the slopes of Little Round Top watching the Union Army’s 20th Maine, commanded by Colonel Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, prepare for battle. Chamberlain was a professor of rhetoric from Bowdoin College but today he is a Union colonel. Colonel Chamberlain and his comrades are about to face a fight where his decisions will shape both their lives and the outcome of the battle.
Chamberlain and the 20th Maine are in a dangerous, and what appears to be losing, situation. Positioned on a 500′ rocky hill, they are the end of the Union line and are to hold that position against a Confederate flank attack. From your vantage point, you hear the thunder of cannon balls crashing around you. You smell trees burning and you hear the screams of injured and dying soldiers. Through the thick smoke, you see groups of soldiers, dressed in gray, pushing upward toward the 20th Maine’s left flank. The Confederate Army is quickly making its move and Chamberlain needs to rapidly make a decision. (See image 2)
You watch Colonel Chamberlain survey the situation: (1) more than half of his regiment is dead, (2) many of his remaining soldiers are wounded, (3) and almost all of their ammunition is gone. He stands quietly, taking everything in, and then you hear him give the order, “Fix bayonets!” You can see his men are surprised by the order. You then hear Chamberlain quickly yell, “Fix bayonets and charge!” Suddenly, you watch as his men scramble to their feet and move together down the hill, following their leader and changing the course of the battle for Little Round Top.
Within minutes, you witness the exhausted group of men under Chamberlain’s command capture hundreds of surprised soldiers in gray. And it all happened because of one leader’s ability to make a split-second decision in a critical situation.
Watch a video of Chamberlain’s story here.
Footnote on Chamberlain: Colonel Chamberlain was professional, tactically proficient and understood human nature. He had the ability to quickly understand what was happening, adapt to the changing situation and make a critical decision. Later in the war, Chamberlain was chosen by Ulysses S. Grant to command the special honor division of veteran brigades formed to receive the surrender of arms and colors of General Lee’s army at Appomattox.
Thoughts, Questions and an Exercise for Learning
What insights into leadership and decision-making can we gain from this compelling story? Here are some questions to consider:
- How did Colonel Chamberlain make the right call amid confusing and rapidly changing conditions, under extreme pressure and with incomplete information?
- What are the intricacies of decision-making in a large organization, the Union Army, and a large group, the 20th Maine Regiment, and how did culture affect what was possible?
- How, and when, did Colonel Chamberlain share his vision for success and reduce the possibility for misinterpretation?
- What process did Colonel Chamberlain use to make the decision to “Fix bayonets and charge?”
- Are there lessons from Chamberlain’s story you can apply to your own life or organization?
Here are some personal questions you should ask yourself?
- How do you make your decisions? Do you use a specific decision model?
- When you make decisions, do you consciously develop and compare possible courses of action to come up with your plan?
- How do you evaluate your decisions?
- Does your organization provide training on decision-making?
Think about a recent decision that you made, or perhaps that someone else made, in a dangerous and stressful situation. How did you/they go about the decision-making process? Was it deliberate or did it appear to be arbitrary? What factors were considered? What courses of action were considered? How was the decision communicated? How was it implemented? What were the outcomes?
Some Thoughts on Future Lessons from History
It’s no small thing to say that history is an excellent self-help guide. It remains true that history repeats itself because we refuse to learn from it. So we should study history not just to acquire facts but also to get better at everything we do.
I have always been intrigued by history—especially the military events connected by strategy, tactics and human behavior—and how it applies to the fire ground. The sheer impact of so many historical events, along with the courage of the people involved, makes these truly amazing stories. After many years of personal reading and reflection, I invite you to read and learn with me as we study history, leadership and how to perform better on the fireground.
Until next time, get prepared, be ready and stay safe!
Bayonet! Forward: My Civil War Reminiscences. Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain. Stan Clark Military Books. Gettysburg, PA. 1994.
The Gettysburg Campaign: A Study in Command. Edwin B. Coddington. Touchstone. New York, NY. 1968.
The Power of Intuition. Gary Klein. Doubleday. New York, NY. 2003.
What lessons from history have helped you make better decisions?
What makes up a good leader? I would suggest that it probably depends on the situation or environment. Every event or group of people requires a particular approach; sometimes direct and commanding, while other times composed and guiding. I believe today’s best approach to leadership is “adaptability.” Adaptable leaders who are decisive and action oriented in the thick of the storm, and who demonstrate an openness to others and a desire to grow them in the calm before the storm, will promote and sustain a more practical and effective culture in the organization.
So read here Time Magazine’s Joel Stein’s take on “why the best leaders today are quiet, calm – even boring.”
Who do you believe makes the better leader? Loud, excitable, and charismatic? Quiet, calm, and boring? Or the right mix of both, at the right time?
Recently, I listened, with great concern, to two different questions about the same subject, a failure to communicate. On one occasion, I was part of a management meeting where the attendees were asking, “Why don’t they understand what we are doing?” Another time, while talking to people I supervise, they asked, “What is going on?” This roadblock, or maybe wall, in communication is a huge problem and affects everything. So what can leaders (even a mid-level leader like me) do to break through this wall? You can increase your “face time” with your people and build trust; to show you care.
Leaders, you need to get out from behind the desk (and get away from the continuous meeting table too; by the way read this book: Read This Before Our Next Meeting) to visit, mentor and socialize with your people. Communicating in person, as opposed to email, memo, and policy has always been and still remains extremely important, even more so in today’s complex and fast-moving world.
Everyone has their idea for a definition of leadership. Books, articles, and seminars tell us that leadership is, “the ability of an individual to influence others to contribute toward the effectiveness and success of the organization.” Here’s my take on leadership, “Leadership is influencing people to act by providing purpose, direction, and motivation while working to accomplish the mission and improving the organization.” That is not done from behind a desk or in a meeting.
Effective personal communication is no small task today, especially in very large organizations. With customer and community expectations increasing, issues with completing training and countless other factors, everyone feels a heavy burden, both physically and mentally, that no one is immune to.
Within our fast-moving culture, we have come to a crossroads with regard to communicating with our people. What happened to the talent of one-on-one, face-to-face mentoring? Email has made the communication process faster, but it’s hindered, to some degree, our willingness to get out from behind the desk and talk. It’s hard to show you care about them and are interested in their problems in an email. Relationships and trust are not created from emails!
I believe we need to put more emphasis on face-time communication. Technology (email, social media, videos, etc.) alone does not create change, relationships with people do (relationships provide purpose, direction, and motivation). Leaders, you must talk, talk, talk! And then listen, listen, listen!
Leadership involvement, getting out there and leading your people from the front will increase awareness and maximize performance. The ongoing demands of today’s world require that leaders communicate well and often. You cannot provide the right kind of leadership needed from behind a desk!
What needs to happen in your organization to improve communication? How can you help make it happen?
Leaders should build teams with people who have a proven willingness to speak their mind.
I love this quote from the latest On Leadership at the Washington Post: “If you have a yes-man working for you, one of you is redundant” (Avis CEO Barry Rand).
Decision making for organizations operating in complex and chaotic conditions emphasizes the importance of upward communication and dissenting opinions to arrive at sound strategic solutions. Most times the unwillingness to speak up is to blame for a failed objective; sometimes those failed objectives cause injury or death. It’s easy to believe we are leaders when everyone around us agrees with everything we say. Because a diverse set of opinions, and sometimes disagreement, are crucial for good decision making, we need strong leaders and followers who are willing to speak up, and then we need to listen to them.
How do we build teams with open communication lines in all directions? I’ll bet TRUST would help.
Read Saying no to ‘yes-men from’ On Leadership here.