Historical Stories: Another Way to Learn Better Decision-Making

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)

Little Round Top - Library of Congress

Little Round Top – Library of Congress

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)

453px-Little_Round_Top2.svgYou 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
Questions
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?

Thought Exercise
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!

Recommended Reading:
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?

Impressions and Lessons from Washington's Mount Vernon

George Washington's home at Mount Vernon, Virgina

I recently spent a day exploring George Washington’s Mount Vernon Estate in Virginia. I toured his home, walked his gardens, and visited his tomb where I had the rare opportunity to read his Prayer For His Country. Some assorted impressions and lessons from my visit.

After visiting Washington’s home, and seeing first-hand where and how he lived and what he thought was important, I’ve come to the conclusion that character was his single most important quality as a leader. Washington decided early in his life that his social behavior, his ethics and integrity, were essential for everyday life. His character, I believe, is what carried him through a life of leadership that continues to encourage us today.

As always, I found a good book to read. The Unexpected George Washington: His Private Life, by Harlow Giles Unger, provides personal insights into Washington’s life as a private man and as a leader that I had never read in other materials.

Of Related Interest:

Two Quick Links: Briefings and Hollowed Ground

I have a column up at Fire Rescue Magazine on FirefighterNation:

Whether in the firehouse or on scene, briefings contribute to operational and tactical goal achievement.

The fire service is a complex system that often operates in a chaotic environment. Emergency scene tactics and strategies, practical hands-on training and daily routine operations all require effective communication of a plan to the people. This is called “the briefing,” and it’s the first step—one that shouldn’t be overlooked—to successful execution. Simply put, “We execute the brief.”

Wildand Fire Leadership has a great post on leadership, staff rides, and the hollowed ground of Gettysburg:

On Hallowed Ground

“Buy ’em books and buy ’em books, and all they do is chew off the covers.” This was a common cry from Mr. Delmar Hardy, my junior high school history teacher. Why is it that I remember his quote, yet I didn’t retain the significant historical events that he presented? Standing upon the hallowed battlegrounds of Gettysburg approximately 35 years later and some 150 years after the Civil War began, I became acutely aware of how important understanding our past is to shaping our future.


A Leader's Expectations: General Robert E. Lee

  • General Lee begins and ends with respect. He focuses on the mission.
  • Lee’s powerful statements:
    • “You have let US down.”
    • “Your mission was to free this army from the enemy Calvary, and to report any movement by the enemy’s main body. That mission was not fulfilled.”
    • “Perhaps you misunderstood my orders? Perhaps I did not make myself clear.”
    • “This must be made very clear. You, sir, with your Calvary, are the eyes of this army. Without your Calvary we are made blind. That has already happened once; it must never, never, happen again.”
    • “There is another fight coming tomorrow, and we need you.”
    • “You must take what I have told you and learn from it.”
    • “I know your quality. You are one of the finest Calvary officers I have ever known, and your service to this army has been invaluable.”