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When it’s OK to go over the boss’s head

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in Leaders & Managers,Workplace Communication

Already well-known in the early days of the Civil War, James A. Garfield received orders to report to Washington, D.C., and resume his military duties after a serious illness.

There, Treasury chief Salmon P. Chase welcomed Garfield as his house guest. The Republican leader found in Garfield a younger version of himself: a self-made man who’d advanced from laborer to political leader.

Garfield next reported to Major Gen. William S. Rosecrans, head of the new Army of the Cumberland in western Tennessee. Despite his staff’s fears that Garfield would spy for the Republicans, Rosecrans figured it would help to have a right-hand man with friends in high places. Garfield soon became his chief of staff.

Garfield wanted the Union to attack boldly, but Rosecrans hesitated and started arguing with his commanders over strategy and the need for more troops and equipment. Garfield implored Rosecrans to hurry and strike “a sturdy blow.”

Getting nowhere, Garfield finally wrote to Chase, complaining that Rosecrans “has been singularly disinclined to grasp the situation with a strong hand.” His letter created quite a stir in Washington.

Had Garfield betrayed Rosecrans? His critics thought so, but here are the mitigating factors:
  • He’d already made his points forcefully to Rosecrans.

  • The fact that he was outspoken, and a friend of Chase’s, were among the reasons Rosecrans named him as chief of staff in the first place.

  • While he might have lacked discretion, Garfield couldn’t have remained silent in good conscience.

  • Rosecrans knew Garfield was writing to Chase about military matters.

  • Garfield ultimately fought at Rosecrans’ side. He even scouted through enemy lines, although his orderly was killed and his horse wounded.

  • Rosecrans never accused Garfield of treachery. His report on the campaign singled out Garfield as “ever active, prudent and sagacious. I feel much indebted to him … He possesses the energy and the instinct of a great commander.”
Bottom line: Garfield went on to serve as U.S. president.

—Adapted from James A. Garfield, Ira Rutkow, Times Books/Henry Holt & Co.

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