The American Civil War: lessons in leadership

Commemorating the four-year struggle that began April 12, 1861 can help leaders to grow in insight.
Andre van Heerden | Apr 11 2011 | comment  



This year marks the 150th anniversary of the outbreak of the American Civil War, and the next four years will see many commemorations of the terrible conflict that transformed forever the life of the United States. History in general overflows with lessons for leaders in all walks of life, but certain watershed events, like the fall of the Roman Republic, the French Revolution, and the World Wars of the 20th century offer more sharply-defined demonstrations of the dynamics of leadership -- and misleadership. The American Civil War is one such episode.

The prodigious figure of Abraham Lincoln continues to dominate all discourse on the Civil War, and there are few finer examples of practical wisdom and integrity for leaders today in politics, business, and the professions. A recent book, Team of Rivals, by Doris Kearns Goodwin explores Lincoln’s determination to pick the best people for the job, regardless of all-too-human inadequacies and the undisguised antipathy they sometimes showed towards him. He accepted personal responsibility for managing conflict and dissent within his team.

The fact that Lincoln could appoint and keep on board a man like Edwin Stanton as Secretary of War is a striking example. Stanton was an able and vigorous executive, astute and always deft in getting things done; but he could also be an abusive bully and downright deceitful in his dealings with colleagues. Even George McClellan, the Union commander whom Lincoln pressured relentlessly to use the massive logistical advantages his army enjoyed over the enemy, found Stanton’s vituperative reflections on the president behind his back unsettling. Yet Lincoln coaxed the very best out of his Secretary of War, conceding graciously whenever he believed his subordinate’s argument was superior to his own, and supporting Stanton strongly through many trials and tribulations.

Lincoln made many mistakes as a leader; indeed it is in the context of his reassuringly human fallibility that the greatness of the man is most fully appreciated. Through all the errors of judgment made in a crisis of cosmic proportions, and the failures that hounded him every step of the way, the president remained true to his purpose and convinced of the justice of the cause. And gradually, others began to share his conviction and esteem his judgment.

Goodwin recalls a wonderful example of Lincoln’s wisdom that followed his promotion of Benjamin Butler to the rank of brigadier-general. Butler was a conservative Democrat and a political opponent of the president, and in accepting the commission wrote to Lincoln that he would be loyal, but would resign as soon as he felt he was no longer able to agree with what the Republican administration was doing. Lincoln’s reply remains a seminal lesson for leaders in any field:

…[W]hen you see me doing anything that for the good of the country ought not to be done, come and tell me so, and why you think so, and then perhaps you won’t have any chance to resign your commission.

The performance of many other famous people chosen to bear the mantle of leadership in that maelstrom – Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, Nathan Bedford Forrest, George McClellan, William Sherman, and Ulysses Grant, to name an obvious few – dramatises the demands of leadership in a time of upheaval. There is a wealth of enlightening and entertaining historical analysis on all the major personalities, and even many less well-known ones, but the classic best-sellers by Bruce Catton and Shelby Foote will provide no end of insight and instruction for leaders today. Catton’s single-volume This Hallowed Ground would be an absorbing starting point.

The best video presentations of the tragedy and triumph of the conflict are Ken Burns’ superb documentary, The Civil War, and Ronald F. Maxwell’s sweeping recreation of the battle of Gettysburg.

There is, however, much more to the leadership learning to be gained from the Civil War than the characters and careers of the principle players. This relates primarily to clarity of vision and integrity, both corporate and personal, and the complexity of human nature which renders formulae and template solutions woefully inadequate in resolving human issues.

The enduring controversy centres on the cause of the conflagration that tore apart not just a nation, but also communities and families. The causes of any human conflict are complex in the extreme, and it was no different with the Civil War. Historians still argue over whether the seeds of the struggle lay in the institution of slavery itself, or in the federal constitution which balanced the power of the central government with that of the individual states. For example, if the New England states had felt they were being held back economically by the rural southern states, would they have had the right to secede from the Union?

Even though Lincoln had stated that he would leave slavery alone where it existed, believing as he did that it would die a natural death if it was not allowed to spread westwards, the political establishment in the southern states insisted that their state sovereignty was being violated. When they claimed the right to secede, and acted on it, they were declared to be in a state of rebellion against the United States and the war erupted. Had Lincoln’s conciliatory approach been matched by the less temperate elements on either side of the divide, war might have been avoided. However, a truth that leaders today need to recover is that while compromise is essential in human relations, there are principles which are non-negotiable. Human freedom is one such principle.

Many southerners were opposed to slavery, and many northerners were racists, and as Lincoln pointed out, there were good and bad, weak and strong, silly and wise on both sides. People from north and south of the Mason-Dixon Line were sucked into the vortex created by political wrangling that had troubled American politics for decades. Yet slavery had been an ugly scar on the nation for more than two centuries. And it was a glaring contradiction of the ideals embodied in the Declaration of Independence and the Federal Constitution.

Neutrality in life, in the face of the injustices we encounter in our communities and in our workplaces, as well as in other countries, is impossible; sooner or later the injustice affects the lives of all, and we must follow our conscience. This is a particularly tragic reality for those whose consciences have not been properly formed through genuine education at home, at school, and in the community at large. It is becoming increasingly clear that the dangerous culture wars that tear at the heart of western societies today, concerning issues like the nature of marriage, the family, abortion, and personal freedom, are unlikely to be resolved by the benign tolerance touted as the essential virtue of civilised society. The explosive situation that the US found itself in 150 years ago, in which men no longer wanted to hear what others had to say, has occurred many times throughout history, and it is certainly happening again today.

As we remember the savage struggle that started in 1861, the next four years will be a good time for all leaders to reflect on their responsibility for the lives of others that is the core reality of leadership, and to grow the insight into human nature, culture, and conflict that is so sorely lacking in our world today.

Andre van Heerden of the Power of Integrity Leadership Program is author of two recent books, Leaders & Misleaders – the art of leading like you mean it, and An Educational Bridge for Leaders.



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