Saturday, May 31, 2014

Robert E. Lee on Leadership by H. W. Crocker III

I was looking forward to this one. Both a student of leadership and an amateur historian of the American Civil War, this analysis of Robert E. Lee’s leadership style and the lessons it offers for our modern times and challenges should have been right up my alley.

I can’t begin to express my disappointment.

Let me start here…

In any event, today our hopes for producing men like America’s Virginia-born Founding Fathers are about as distant as our hopes of hearing news of rising SAT scores, the growing unpopularity of television, and the demise of rock music.

Ummm. All right.

But the only known way to achieve self-mastery goes against the current of modern American society. That single way, the narrow gate through which effective leaders must pass, was expressed by Lee after the war when he advised a mother on the instruction of her infant son: “Teach him he must deny himself.”

The author’s manuscript is peppered with editorial comments like these. Wailings against the degradation of American society and the forces (like television and rock music?) that are causing it. So many comments, in fact, that I had to double check the copyright date on the text I was reading--assuming that it would be somewhere in the neighborhood if 1958.

Nope. 1999.

But, okay. I fundamentally disagree with his idea that effective leadership comes in only one stripe, but I can get past that. What does he have to say about Lee? And about the leadership model that we should follow?

This trust in conscience--and in the guiding hand of Providence--was another of Lee’s great strengths. By following his conscience, by doing what he honestly thought was right, by straining every sinew to achieve that right as dictated by duty, he guaranteed himself the serene self-confidence that is necessary in a leader. He expressed himself on this point in a letter to his daughter Mildred: “The struggle which you describe you experience between doing what you ought and what you desire is common to all. You have only always to do what is right. It will become easier by practice, and you will enjoy in the midst of your trials the pleasure of an approving conscience. That will be worth everything else.”

By trusting to Providence, he knew that even the worst outcomes would somehow he turned to right. As he told the Reverend J. William Jones, who could not give up thinking that the late war might have been won if certain decisions had been made at key points, “Yes, all that is very sad, and might be a cause for self-reproach, but that we are conscious that we have humbly tried to do our duty. We may therefore, with calm satisfaction, trust in God and leave the results to Him.”

Huh? Just do your duty? Trust in Providence to determine what’s right? Excuse me, Marse Robert, but that’s not leadership.That’s the abdication of leadership. Leadership, last time I checked, was doing the right thing--not just doing your duty. Was it right to go to war with the Union? It was certainly Lee’s duty, but was it right?

That, I eventually came to realize, was my fundamental disagreement with this book--and it is the great paradox of using Lee as a leadership example. When one considers the true leadership gifts that this man had, the preternatural loyalty he earned and the uncanny ability to leverage that loyalty to accomplish seemingly impossible goals, it is an unmitigated tragedy that such talent and vision was applied to the crusade it was. Imagine what phenomenal good Lee could have achieved if he had applied his considerable skill and discipline to a cause that was worth fighting for? And I’m not talking about the Union’s war effort.

But the paradox seems lost on Crocker. Indeed, he seems to revel not just in Lee’s skill, but in the cause they were put into service for.

The book documents Lee’s entire career, pulling specific lessons out of specific situations and attempting to translate them into actionable aphorisms for the modern business executive. During the Civil War years, the stress is often on the risk and long chances Lee had to take. Here’s an excerpt from the Battle of Second Manassas:

[Union General John] Pope mistakenly thought he had finally “bagged” the slippery [Conferderate General Thomas “Stonewall”] Jackson. “I see no possibility of his escape,” said Pope. But Jackson was Lee’s bramble bush. While Jackson held him, Lee rode up with General Longstreet to hit Pope on the flank, with the intention of sweeping him away as though he were a tumbleweed beside a gate. Pope could put more men on the field than Jackson and Longstreet combined, but Lee knew a leader has to face squarely the necessity of risk, especially when the odds are against him. “The disparity...between the contending forces,” Lee noted calmly, “rendered the risks unavoidable.”

What exactly is the leadership lesson here? That desperate times call for desperate measures? Well, I can’t help but wonder why the times are so desperate in the first place. Perhaps it is because our leader has chosen to fight the wrong war?

Because isn’t that an essential ingredient in any leadership cocktail? Knowing which wars to fight and which wars to avoid? And isn’t Lee the textbook example of a leader who was too blinded by loyalty and duty to make that most critical of decisions correctly?

Lee’s wartime correspondence seems peppered with admissions that the army he commanded was not up to the task with which it had been charged.

“The army is not properly equipped for an invasion of the enemy’s territory. It lacks much of the material of war, is feeble in transportation, the animals being much reduced, and then men are poorly provided with clothes, and in thousands of instances are destitute of shoes.”

As well as, remarkably, admissions that perhaps the cause for which they fought was not worth winning in the eyes of the world.

“As far as I have been able to judge, this war presents to the European world but two aspects. A context in which one side is contending for abstract slavery and the other against it. The existence of vital rights involved does not seem to be understood or appreciated.”

The vital rights to which Lee refers are not well understood today and were evidently not well understood then. The goal, then, was not clear, and the resources needed to achieve it were not available. What decision does a leader make when faced with such a circumstance?

+ + +

The book is also strongly biased against Confederate General James Longstreet.

When General Longstreet arrived on the flank, he waited, as was his wont, for just the right moment to strike. He kept his full complement of troops drawn up and made a careful survey of the land, unhurried by the obvious pressure on Jackson or by Lee’s repeated suggestions that he expedite his assault. Finally, Longstreet smashed the exposed Union line with an artillery barrage that lifted the pressure on Jackson. Then, at Lee’s command, Longstreet sent his troops charging into the Federals, rolling the bluecoats up, while Jackson’s own troopers jumped over their defensive positions, screaming the Rebel Yell.

The bold emphasis is my own, and I’ve found this kind of assumed bias common among Lee worshippers (among whose ranks it only makes sense to place Crocker). In their view, Longstreet--who Lee himself famously called his “old war horse”--was always foiling Lee’s masterful plans with his hesitant nature and borderline insubordination. I think it’s an overly simplistic narrative, and no where is it typically more relied upon than in trying to explain Lee’s loss at Gettysburg.

In fact, Longstreet’s dilatory tactics had again bollixed up the execution of Lee’s plan. Colonel Alexander had expended too much ammunition. There was not enough to adequately support the Confederate advance. As had happened the day before, Longstreet’s delays, his hope against hope that the plans he disagreed with would be cancelled, resulted only in the plans being executed in the worst possible way.

This is, of course, talking about the third day at Gettysburg and Pickett’s Charge. Crocker is extremely harsh on Longstreet here, and pulls the following lesson out of that harshness.

Lee learned a hard lesson at Gettysburg. Jackson, who would have executed Lee’s plans with all the vigor he desired, was irreplaceable. The lesson was, again, that people count. In any organization personnel is policy, and it is wrong to trust to subordinates who do not fully share a leader’s vision. The result will nearly always be half-hearted, faulty execution and even subversion--however well-intentioned--of one’s plans.

Actually, it is a good lesson. A leader must have people who share his vision, and it is best to entrust execution to those who do. But I believe the lesson is misapplied to this situation. Let’s continue with Crocker’s own analysis.

The Confederates now had the challenge of crossing a mile of open ground with minimal artillery support to suppress Federal fire. They did not flinch. Officers to the front, General Armistead shoved his black hat over the tip of his sword and waved his men forward.

Now--now that it was too late--Longstreet joined Colonel Alexander to find out why the Confederate guns were silent. Alexander informed him. He was saving what little ammunition he had left so that he could offer at least some support for the Confederate advance. Longstreet was shocked. Pickett’s men should have been ordered forward an hour and a half earlier. Now they were marching into a maw of doom. “Go and stop Pickett right where he is, and replenish your ammunition!” Longstreet commanded.

But it was impossible. “We can’t do that, sir. The train has but little. It would take an hour to distribute it, and meanwhile the enemy would improve the time.”

Longstreet shook his head sorrowfully. He mumbled a mournful confession. “I do not want to make this charge. I do not see how it can succeed. I would not make it now but that General Lee has ordered it and expects it.”

It might have been better if Longstreet had not allowed his melancholy to overcome him, encouraging him to drag his feet--if he’d remembered the old saw that he who hesitates is lost. That was the apropos tag, which Lee and Jackson understood, but which Longstreet was constitutionally unable to see and avoid.

The trope about Jackson flawlessly executing Lee’s plans is something that deserves examination. It’s often used to explain Lee’s failure on day one to take the high ground that he winds up attacking on day three. Ewell was ordered to take that hill (if practicable) and he failed to do so. If only the immortal Jackson was there! He would’ve taken that hill. And now his ghost is being conjured up to indict Longstreet for a lackadaisical performance on the second and third days. Except Jackson didn’t always accomplish what Lee wanted him to, most notably during the Seven Days, when he was arguably more half-hearted and subversive that Longstreet is being accused of being.

But there’s something even more important I want to explore. Taking the high ground from the Federals on days two and three at Gettysburg was a suicide mission--not at all likely to be achieved even under the best of circumstances. Longstreet knew that, and he tried to talk Lee out of it. But Lee would not hear of it and decided--as the supreme commander--to move forward even knowing that his most trusted subordinate did not believe the plan would work.

And when the men came falling back after the failure of Pickett’s charge, what did Lee say? Did he blame Longstreet for his “melancholy” and for “dragging his feet”? No. Famously, Lee said, “It’s all my fault. I thought my men were invincible.”

Here is the simple crux of my argument. Lee’s vision was flawed. Now, do subordinates need to share a leader’s vision? Yes, of course they do. But do they need to do it blindly, when that vision is flawed? No. Absolutely not. Trusted subordinates share a leader’s vision. But effective leaders shape their vision by listening to trusted subordinates.

And funny how just three books ago I read a fictionalized version of events where Lee did exactly that at this critical juncture--and ended up winning the battle.

+ + +

The author also falls squarely in line with the standard Lee-worshipping interpretation of Antietam, which, by the way, he introduces like this:

Lincoln would not deliver his Emancipation Proclamation until September 23, 1862, after Lee’s invasion of Maryland and after the battle of Sharpsburg (or Antietam, as it is known in the North)...

Yes, I know that the Union named battles after rivers they were fought near (Antietam, Bull Run, etc.) and the Confederacy named the same battles after towns they were fought near (Sharpsburg, Manassas, etc.), but the war has been over for 149 years now. Maybe it’s time for historians and professional observers to adopt a common set of nomenclature?

But I digress. What I really want to talk about is the famous accident in which Lee’s plan for invading Maryland is found by Union troopers, the paper on which it is written being used to wrap three cigars. Armed with such intelligence, Union commander George McClellan boasts that he can now certainly “whip Bobby Lee.”

Here is Crocker’s commentary on the event:

Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia had gone from the supreme triumph of leading a Northern invasion to the supreme hazard of facing a force more than twice as large, that was privy to Lee’s plans, and that could conceivably shut off his line of retreat. Even this description does not convey the full force of Lee’s danger. McClellan was bringing 75,000 men to the attack. Lee’s full strength was only 38,000 men, and he could bring that number to the field only if Jackson’s corps returned in time from Harper’s Ferry.

Curse that rotten fate! Spoiling Lee’s “supreme triumph” and splendid plan. Were if not for this accident, Lee most certainly would have ended that war two and a half years before he was forced to surrender. But not to worry. Even against these long odds, Lee remained victorious.

While the engagement at Sharpsburg had blunted his invasion--indeed, effectively ended it--the Army of Northern Virginia had not only survived but achieved what amounted to a brilliant tactical victory. It had held its ground against overwhelming odds, and held it again without challenge the next day.

I find it very revealing that the author lauds Lee for holding ground against his foe (remarkably, even declaring the following day in which McClellan chose not to attack him as some kind of victory). As the events of late 1864 and early 1865 would painfully reveal, holding ground was not an objective that would actually win this brutal war. Lee held ground at the Wilderness, at Spotsylvania, on the North Anna River, at Cold Harbor, and at Petersburg, but still managed to lose the war, by that time, some would argue, inevitably so.

The author sees Sharpsburg as a sterling example of Lee’s leadership traits. I see it as another strike against a brilliant commander who had chosen the wrong war to fight.

+ + +

And, finally, I think Crocker is just plain wrong when he tries to draw a leadership lesson out of Lee’s famous comment that it is well that war is so terrible, otherwise we should grow too fond of it.

When Lee said that it is well that war is so terrible or we should grow too fond of it, this is what he meant: war, as history has taught us, is sometimes inevitable, even necessary. But we must not let the use of force, or for that matter the necessary if harsh actions of business--and the principles or arts that must animate them--override the higher claims of our nature and of right in our other affairs, or when force can be avoided even in the affairs that require it.

Huh? Did I read that right? It’s good that war to so terrible because otherwise we would resort to it more often and even use it in situations that don’t require it? And by extension, it is good that the actions of business are so harsh otherwise we would use them more often and even in situations that don’t require them? Is that what he’s saying?

War, as Clausewitz famously defined it, is the continuance of politics by other means. In the politics of a free people, the first goal, Lee would say, is peace with honor, persuasion through debate, not settlement by force of arms. But when force of arms is chosen, a commander should behave like Lee--audacious, aggressive, and combative in strategy (though not in personal manner), and responsible in the use of power (including having a mindfulness for his opponent’s civilians and their rights and privileges).

In business, too, the striving for competitive advantage, the “hype” of marketing, the focus on man as a narrowly materialistic being with appetites and attitudes to be stimulated, prodded, and flattered--all these things might be necessary, and within their own sphere even positive goods, in that they manufacture and spread wealth, but they are not the whole of humanity, or even the best part, or even helpful to the best part. A business leader might take his cue from Lee and find it useful to remind himself that it is well for us to know that an executive’s power over his staff, the cut and thrust of competition, the “collateral damage” of products that serve amoral or immoral ends, the Mammon that is the marketplace, can all be so terrible so that we should not grow too fond of it at the expense of our families, our neighborhoods, our greater communities--our states, our country--or our religion.

Yeah. I guess he is.

First of all, this is not what Lee meant at all. Lee is purported to have said this during the Fredericksburg campaign, while standing with Longstreet at the top of Marye’s Heights, and watching as Union General Ambrose Burnside assailed the ridge with nine divisions totaling 30,000 men. One Confederate on the scene was reported as saying: "What a magnificent sight it is! We have never witnessed such a battle-array before; long lines following one another, of brigade front. It seemed like a huge blue serpent about to encompass and crush us in its folds. . . ."

But this soldier’s fears were unfounded. Not a single Union soldier reached the heights, though 8,000 fell in one bloody attempt after another.

When Lee spoke his words, he wasn’t expressing joy at crushing his enemy. He was recognizing that the bravery, valor and sacrifice borne by his enemy was so moving that such a display would make one crave more war if it wasn’t so terrible. In it, one is exposed to both the basest and the noblest actions of man.

Second, even if Lee meant what Crocker claims he did, what kind of leadership lesson it this for a business executive? Use the vile tools of business to destroy your competition, but don’t do it too bad or too often that you become intoxicated by the slaughter? Wouldn’t a better lesson be to avoid that spiral altogether and find a way to conduct business that is based on mutual respect and gain?

It is, I think, taking the military examples offered by Lee and his career too far. It is the overall theme of the book, I know, but there are times when this fundamental concept is expressed in language that is too difficult for me to swallow. He often refers to “opponents” as if the challenges that a modern business executive faces can always be directly mapped to the challenges of a military commander trying to overcome or destroy an enemy. It is a frame that has some value, but as a fundamental premise for how to conduct yourself in a business environment, I question whether it is the right one.

+ + +

Let me try to end where I started. With another one of those head-shaking phrases that makes me wonder when this book was written.

Today, a collegian with truly up-to-date, hip American parents would more likely be advised to use a condom when indulging in what in Lee’s day was regarded as the sin of fornication.

He mentions this in comparison to the fatherly advice Lee offered his son while at West Point, which he thinks epitomizes the heart of Lee’s leadership example--that of a simple Christian soul.

Lee was a man who saw the necessity of rising above a material or corporeal existence, a goal far less commonplace in our own times, except perhaps as a vague, undisciplined, and even self-centered longing for our lives to have an eternal or spiritual value.

Which for me begs a final question as I come near the close of this disappointing book. Does Lee, in the end, have anything to teach a world that doesn’t see the “necessity of rising above a material or corporeal existence?” I, for one, do not long for a life that has eternal or spiritual value--preferring instead to positively affect the world around me while I’m still living in it. Would Crocker say that Lee has something to teach me? Or would he dismiss me because of my television, rock music and condom-using habits?

I’ll tell you what I think. I think Lee does has something to teach me and a world that may have moved past his 19th Century Christian premise. Lee’s fidelity and sense of duty are admirable traits, but only when you decouple them from the archaic institutions to which he applied them. A state, a government, one’s own marble posterity--none of these deserve the attention that Lee seemed to lavish on them.

But take a Lee-like sense of duty and nourish it for the betterment of those around you, those who are worse off than you, and Lee can become a shining example that is worth following.

And, that might even be more Christian, in a 21st Century kind of way.

+ + +

This post was written by Eric Lanke, an association executive, blogger and author. For more information, visit, follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

No comments:

Post a Comment