There is much to be learned from the traits of effective military leaders.

We Should All Possess the Leadership Traits of Col. Joshua Chamberlain

Article originally published in the Philadelphia Business Journal on November 6, 2018

As leaders, how do we win the hearts, minds and confidence of the people within our organizations so that they are fully invested in the organizations’ mission?

There is much to be learned from the traits of effective military leaders. One such leader is Col. Lawrence Joshua Chamberlain.

Chamberlain was a 34-year-old commander of the 20th Maine Volunteer Infantry Regiment of the Union Army during the Civil War. He was previously a language professor at Bowdoin College, and one of many ordinary people who volunteered to serve their country.

Chamberlain was a modest, determined and understated leader with fierce resolve and intense will – qualities identified in successful leaders by Jim Collins in his book, Good to Great. Chamberlain’s honesty, integrity, ethics and sense of honor made him a very effective leader.

In his classic novel Killer Angels, historian Michael Shaara wrote a historical account of the Battle of Gettysburg extracted from the journals of those who fought in the battle.

Shaara writes of an incident in which Chamberlain is given custody of 120 Union mutineer prisoners just prior to the battle of Little Round Top. He was granted authority to shoot any prisoner who refused to follow his orders. Rather than threaten these soldiers, he took a different approach. He needed them to strengthen his regiment for the upcoming battle.

A prisoner tells Chamberlain, “They been tryin’ to break us by not feedin’ us.” so Chamberlain gives them food and water.

Private Bucklin from the group approaches Chamberlain and says that he was selected to tell him of the prisoners’ grievances. Chamberlain listens intently rather than ignore him.

In a reenactment of Chamberlain’s speech to the prisoners from the film Gettysburg, (YouTube video courtesy of Bill Toth) he says, “I’ve been talking with Private Bucklin. He’s told me about your problem. There’s nothing I can do today. We’ll be moving out in a few minutes, we’ll be moving all day.

“I’ve been ordered to take you men with me. I’ve been told that if you don’t come, I can shoot you. Well, you know I won’t do that. Maybe someone else will, but I won’t.

“The whole reb army is up the road a ways waiting for us… We can surely use you fellows. We’re well below half-strength and whether you fight of not, that’s up to you.

“You know who we are and what we’re doing here… This Regiment was formed last summer, in Maine. There were a thousand of us then. There’s less than 300 of us now. … [We came for different reasons.] Many of us came because it was the right thing to do.

“This is a different kind of army. If you look at history you’ll see [that] men fight for pay … or some other kind of loot. … But we’re here for something new. … We’re an army out to set other men free. …

“If you choose to join us, if you want your muskets back nothing more will be said. If you won’t join us, you’ll come along under guard. When this is over I’ll do what I can to see that you get fair treatment. … Gentlemen, I think if we lose this fight, we lose the war. So, if you choose to join us, I’ll be personally very grateful.”

The way in which Chamberlain treated and spoke to these men had the intended effect. He demonstrated his respect for them and gave them a purpose. All but six of the 120 mutineers chose to join him, significantly increasing the strength of his regiment, possibly making the difference in the July 2, 1863 defense of Little Round Top.

Holding their flank position at Little Round Top against attacks by the Confederate Alabama 15th Regiment was an imperative. Chamberlain was told by his commanding officer, “You cannot withdraw under any conditions. If you go, the line is flanked and they’ll go right up the hilltop and … [attack us from the rear]. You must defend this place to the last.”

A Union loss at Little Round Top could have changed the outcome of the Battle of Gettysburg, the Civil War and perhaps the course of history.

Chamberlain’s Regiment held the high ground, which gave it an advantage over the Confederates, but they had suffered heavy losses and were running out of ammunition. They risked being overrun.

In an inspiring, spine-tingling reenactment (YouTube video courtesy of Zandalis) of the battle from the film Gettysburg, Chamberlain says “We can’t run away… We can’t shoot. So, let’s fix bayonets.” Chamberlain decides to take the initiative and go on the offensive.

Chamberlain tells his men, “We’ll have the advantage of moving downhill. [Captain] Ellis [Spear], you take the left wing. I’ll take the right. I want a right wheel forward of the whole regiment… We charge … swinging down the hill. Understand? Does everyone understand?” His officers respond in unison, ‘Yes sir.’”

Chamberlain screams the bone-chilling commands “BAYONETS” and “CHARGE!” With their swords held high, Chamberlain and Ellis lead their courageous men into a fierce bayonet attack down the hill. The Confederates fire at near point-blank range at the charging regiment, but, not being mentally prepared to face bayonets, are overwhelmed and either retreat or surrender. Through a valiant effort, Chamberlain and his regiment hold Little Round Top.

After the Civil War, Chamberlain was awarded the Medal of Honor for his defense of Little Round Top. Chamberlain’s bayonet charge was pivotal in the Union’s victory at Gettysburg and the Civil War.

Why was Chamberlain’s leadership during the defense of Little Round Top so effective? He was a visible leader who led from the front. He communicated to his men the importance of the mission and their role in fulfilling it. His men respected and trusted him because Chamberlain respected and trusted them. They gave Chamberlain their loyalty and maximum effort.

Business leaders will never face the life and death situations that our military leaders do, but we can all learn from the inspirational leadership of Joshua Chamberlain.

Stan Silverman is founder and CEO of Silverman Leadership. He is a speaker, advisor and nationally syndicated writer on leadership, entrepreneurship and corporate governance. Silverman earned a Bachelor of Science degree in chemical engineering and an MBA degree from Drexel University. He is also an alumnus of the Advanced Management Program at the Harvard Business School. He can be reached at Follow Silverman on LinkedIn here and on Twitter, @StanSilverman.

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