Tap into your employee’s sense of purpose

Article originally published in the Philadelphia Business Journal on October 26, 2020.

Every leader accomplishes an organization’s objectives through the efforts of others. As a leader, how do you win the hearts, minds and confidence of the people within your organization? 

Much has been written about the traits of effective leaders, who:

  • Are people of character and possess ethics and integrity
  • Have common sense and good critical judgment
  • Possess emotional intelligence and show empathy
  • Earn credibility and the trust of their followers
  • Attract others to support their cause
  • Are readable and demonstrate consistency in decision making
  • Inspire others to achieve beyond what they thought they were capable of achieving
  • Recognize the brutal facts of reality and find a way to prevail

Another important trait of effective leaders is to appeal to their followers’ sense of purpose to win their hearts and minds, so they are fully invested in the organization’s mission.

There is much to be learned from the traits of effective military leaders. One such leader is Colonel Joshua Chamberlain. He was a 34-year-old commander of the 20th Maine Volunteer Infantry Regiment of the Union Army during the Civil War. I wrote about Chamberlain in my book, “Be Different! The Key to Business and Career Success.”

The Killer Angels - a novel of the Civil War by Michael Shaara
Photo credit: Ballatine Books

Chamberlain was previously a language professor at Bowdoin College, and one of many ordinary people who volunteered to serve their country. He 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. 

 In the film “Gettysburg,” Chamberlain addresses the prisoners (YouTube video courtesy of Dr. Bill Toth)  stating: “I’ve been ordered to take you men with me. 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 or 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 tapped into their sense of 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 pivotal defense of Little Round Top. 

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 of the battle (YouTube video courtesy of Zandalis), Chamberlain says, “We can’t run away… We can’t shoot. So, let’s fix bayonets.” Chamberlain decides they will take the initiative and go on the offensive. He tells his officers, “We charge … swinging down the hill. Understand? Does everyone understand?” They look at him first with disbelief, and then respond in unison, “Yes sir.” 

Chamberlain screams the bone-chilling commands “BAYONETS” and “CHARGE!” With their swords held high, he leads his 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 are either killed, 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. His bayonet charge was pivotal in the Union’s victory at Gettysburg and in 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, their role in fulfilling it and tapped into their sense of purpose. His men respected and trusted him because Chamberlain respected and trusted them. They gave Chamberlain their loyalty and maximum effort. 

We as 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 and author of “Be Different! The Key to Business and Career Success.” He is also a speaker, advisor and widely read nationally syndicated columnist on leadership, entrepreneurship and corporate governance. He can be reached at

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