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Proclaim the what, not the how

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in Leaders & Managers,Leadership Skills

Clarity and leadership go together. Communicate clear directions and give your team the leeway to find ways to advance toward the goal.

On July 2, 1863, a key Civil War battle was unfolding in Gettysburg. The Union forces lined up on a hill to defend against Gen. Robert E. Lee’s Confederate army.

A Union commander told his subordinate officer, Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, and his 400 soldiers, “If the line is overrun by Confederate attackers, the entire Union army will disintegrate.”

Chamberlain understood he had one job: to hold his position under any or all circumstances.

The commander did not tell Chamberlain how to do that, but he unequivocally communicated what mattered most.

Within minutes of their conversation, Lee’s forces attacked. After two hours of nonstop fighting, Chamberlain’s team was running low on ammunition.

Chamberlain understood that he needed to find a creative solution or the Confederates would penetrate his line. So he ordered his men to fix bayonets on their empty muskets and charge down the hill.

This unusual maneuver startled Lee’s troops and they retreated.

Chamberlain’s ability to think of a rarely used strategy under intense pressure saved the day. He wound up earning the Medal of Honor for his valor and inventiveness.

While Chamberlain rightly deserved to receive America’s highest military recognition, it’s important to recognize his commander’s role as well. By clearly summarizing the situation and prioritizing what Chamberlain needed to do, the commander demonstrated strong leadership.

— Adapted from “Four Lessons in Adaptive Leadership,” Michael Useem, www.hbr.org.

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