I wrote this for the most recent issue of the organizational development newsletter I edit: “Oh those men, those men over there! I cannot get them out of my mind.” Such was the lament of General Ambrose E. Burnside, after he sent 12,653 men to be killed or wounded charging unprotected up a hill into withering fire from General Robert E. Lee’s Confederate army at Fredericksburg, Virginia. Burnside never wavered from his vision, despite the pleadings of capable subordinates, who could see with perfect clarity that attacking Lee’s men, who were behind a stone wall at the top of a hill, was folly. He ordered the attack and then sat back in his headquarters awaiting the execution of his commands. It was strategy (bordering on wishful thinking) without tactics. As if to punctuate this point, when the Union army early in the day punched a hole through the Confederate line through some woods to the left of the hill, Burnside choose not to send reinforcements. Instead he allowed this promising attack to falter, and rigidly stuck to his doomed vision of taking the hill. Interestingly, despite this and other follies (he may have singlehandedly lost the battle of Antietam, amongst other things), Burnside remained a popular leader, twice being elected to the US Senate from Rhode Island. And the word “sideburns” literally traces back to this man and his bold style of facial hair.
History is full of the contrast between leaders who set direction and then make adjustments, and those who are too detached to know what is really going on. Two leaders, Napoleon Bonaparte and Robert E. Lee, make this contrast evident by succeeding when they made adjustments and failing when they did not. In his prime, Napoleon was a master of battlefield tactics, such as marching secretly behind the Austrian army, striking their flank, and defeating them soundly at Ulm, Germany. While his subordinates capably executed his tactical decisions, he was clearly the master of the situation, keeping a close eye on the ever changing conditions, and adjusting his plans accordingly.
We can only speculate why (although illness may have played a role), but in key battles late in his career, notably at Borodino and Waterloo, Napoleon hung back, leaving execution of his plan and tactical adjustments in the hands of his immediate subordinates. Unfortunately for him, they weren’t up to the task. Their blunders were many, culminating with Field Marshall Ney’s ill-advised decision to send the entire French cavalry, 12,000 men, into an unsupported charge against the center of the Duke of Wellington’s line at Waterloo. Napoleon’s normal discipline of coordinating his artillery, infantry and cavalry attacks neglected in the heat of the moment, the gallant French cavalry was cut down along with any hope of victory.
Robert E. Lee’s tale is similar, although not due to over-relying on his subordinates, but rather to abandoning his own past practice at a critical moment that turned the course of the Civil War. As mentioned, at Fredericksburg Lee chose a strong defensive position (top of a hill, behind a wall), and then was rewarded as Burnside sent the Union army forward like lambs to the slaughter. Following Burnside’s dismissal by Lincoln, Lee again outwitted his replacement, General “Fighting Joe” Hooker, at the battle of Chancellorsville, this time with audacious offensive tactics.
Hooker’s strategy was reasonable enough. Move a sizeable force upstream and strike the confederates, still entrenched at Fredericksburg, in the rear. Unfortunately for Fighting Joe, Lee anticipated this move, and made his own bold counter move, splitting his forces and sending Stonewall Jackson around Hooker’s rear where he launched an attack at nightfall that sent the Union forces into a panic. As Lee attacked from one side and Jackson from the other, Hooker became first indecisive, and then literally knocked senseless when a cannonball shattered a post he was leaning on. The only decisive action he took was to stubbornly refuse to relinquish command, even as he simultaneously failed to give desperately needed direction. The battle became a route, with the Union losing 4139 more men than they had in the folly at Fredericksburg. They South paid dearly though when Jackson, a brilliant tactician, was accidentally cut down by his own men in the falling darkness, the occupational hazard of literally leading in the front.
Lee’s quick tactical adjustment, from strong defensive position, to hitting the enemy with surprise and in their weakest point, paid off at Chancellorsville, as his tactics often did throughout the war. At the battle of Gettysburg, rather than outwitting his opponent, Lee tried to overpower them, launching a frontal assault on a heavily defended position. The cream of his still strong army marched across open fields and up a hill into the teeth of Union artillery and rifle fire (as at Fredericksburg entrenched behind a stone wall) in the now infamous “Pickett’s charge.” Only 250 or so out of 15,000 reached the top, only to be overwhelmed as their reward for doing so. Half of the 15,000 were cut down, with the other half retreating in defeat. The Confederacy never again mounted a serious offensive into the North, and the war became an inevitable battle of bloody attrition as the Union essentially wore down the South with superior numbers. Uncharacteristically, Lee had abandoned his clever tactics for a charge into an excellent defensive position. As with Napoleon’s shift to a “hands off” approach, why will forever be a mystery, but it’s a clear and tragic example of when “vision is not enough.”
In sum, Burnside stuck rigidly to his vision, ignoring the pleas of his subordinates that could have averted disaster. Napoleon was a superb tactician when he was hands on, but failed to instill the same tactical discipline in his subordinates, leading to disaster when they were abruptly required to think on their own. Hooker’s vision was better than his ability to adjust…and when he needed to delegate authority he failed to do so. Finally, Lee abandoned past practice of patient tactics to gamble on a “quick fix” that was almost certainly doomed to fail.
While there are many lessons to be learned from these stories, the emphasis here is that strategy rarely unfolds the way one envisions it. A wise leader stays abreast of conditions in the field by actively listening to people at all levels of the organization, and then helps the organization adjust. In contrast, some leaders are out of touch with their subordinates and others seem so determined to work through them that they lose touch with the situations and the people below. In the latter case, some worry (due to past experience) that if they “think out loud” employees will take the conversation as an order, resulting in wasted activity and confusion about the chain of command. Prevent that by being as clear as you can (“I’m just thinking out loud…I’m not asking you to do anything!”) not by restricting your interactions. Furthermore, at every level one must work to prevent misunderstanding by sharpening the quality of conversations. Don’t settle for generalizations such as “it’s going good” or “this place is falling apart.” Inquire what specifically is working, and what specifically isn’t working. Clarify your intentions with your direct reports as well. Staying in touch below them doesn’t mean that you don’t trust them, that you want to undermine their authority, or that you aren’t going to rely on them for information and advice. It does mean that you don’t want to over-rely on them for information because you want to prevent their blind spots from becoming your own. No matter how well intentioned, it is easy for people to be too attached to their own positions and departments and miss the way in which their own groups are contributing to problems. Your job is to help ensure all think across the entire system.
To lead you must stay in touch with a critical mass, one way or another. Too much distance erodes one’s ability to rally people to action. Staying connected is both an art and a science. Don’t take over decision-making authority that belongs below you, but do keep in direct contact with as much of the organization as you can. Incorporate what you see and hear into strategy and tactics at your own level. If you are implementing lean manufacturing, for example, and your organization has over-adjusted by starving the plant of spare parts, do what it takes to get the right amount of spare parts! If you have de-centralized any function such as engineering (by moving the engineers into the field), keep an eye on whether plant wide projects are now being neglected. Conversely, if you have centralized a function such as engineering so that they can concentrate on systemic improvements, make sure there are still engineering resources available for problem-solving emergent production issues. No vision is perfect without adjustments! Set your strategy, stay in touch, and be prepared to adjust.