In honor of the 150th Anniversary of the Civil War’s beginning this month I am continuing my blog series on business lessons from the Civil War.
People play a key role in any strategic initiative. In the business world, achieving alignment of purpose within a leadership team is a prerequisite for success. In addition, identifying leaders who aggressively take the initiative to seize opportunities can make all the difference. These organizational planning challenges exist outside of business, too, and are exemplified in some of the key lessons of the Civil War.
The most-significant organizational challenges in the Civil War involved the two competing Presidents and their decisions regarding military leadership – Abraham Lincoln for the US and Jefferson Davis for the Confederate States of America (CSA).
The two Presidents both faced key challenges regarding delegation of authority and personnel selection – their different approaches contributed to the eventual result of the war.
Both Lincoln and Davis ended the war with an overall commander overseeing all their ground forces. This result acknowledged that the complexity of managing armies comprised of hundreds of thousands of men spread out over half of a continent was too much for a leader who also held the political responsibility as President.
Davis only made this choice (General Robert E. Lee) when it was far too late, however, just months before the war ended. If Davis had put Lee in this position in late 1862, for example, different strategies might have been employed that would have altered the course of the war. Davis’ reluctance to make this move was probably due in part to his extensive military experience – a graduate of West Point he held the Secretary of War position in the Buchanan Presidential administration.
Lincoln, with much less military training than Davis, was always looking for an overall military commander who could lead effectively. It was not till he put General U.S. Grant in that position in late 1863, however, that Lincoln had an overall commander who shared his strategic vision for an aggressive prosecution of the offensive war needed to defeat the Confederacy.
Lincoln’s mistakes in his search for an effective #2 also had more dramatic negative effects than Davis’ approach. In late 1861 Lincoln made General George B. McClellan the overall commander. McClellan did not agree with Lincoln’s desire for an aggressive strategy and events eventually led to McClellan being removed from this position just a few months later in early 1862 – Lincoln then took a more direct role in military leadership – with poor results. Lincoln participated in decisions that played directly into Lee’s hands as CSA commander in Virginia. Lee’s maneuvers confused Lincoln and his advisors leading directly to poor force deployments that contributed to massive Confederate victories in The Seven Days and Second Bull Run.
Lincoln’s desperate search for leaders who could defeat the well-led CSA forces created a merry-go-round of new and different commanders – particularly in the eastern Army of the Potomac. The strength of Lincoln’s approach, however, is that he promoted people based on merit (e.g. military success) and did not let other considerations derail his focus on success.
Davis, on the other hand, allowed both personal bias and claims of seniority to play a significant role in his leadership choices. Davis’ bias in favor of General Braxton Bragg kept the latter commander in place despite humiliating withdrawals after inconclusive battles at Perryville in Kentucky and Murfreesboro in Tennessee. Bragg eventually lost Chattanooga and Davis still kept him in place until, with the aid of General Longstreet’s Virginia forces, he won the most-significant CSA victory in the west at Chickamauga. Bragg followed up this victory with the siege of Chattanooga that Grant broke in 1862 despite Bragg’s entrenchments on commanding heights overlooking the city. Facing a near mutiny of Bragg’s subordinates, Davis finally replaced him with General Joe Johnston.
If Davis had a bias in favor of Bragg that impaired his judgment he also held a dislike of Joe Johnston that may have led to disastrous results. In 1864, as US General Tecumseh Sherman advanced toward Atlanta Johnston fell back to the outskirts of that city. Johnston’s withdrawal could be seen as a skillful maneuver that preserved his army’s strength while denying Sherman a decisive victory. Davis chose to see it as failure and replaced Johnston with Texan John Hood whose aggressive and unsuccessful attacks first led to the loss of Atlanta then the destruction of his Army in Tennessee at Franklin and Nashville.
The fall of Atlanta in September, 1864, turned the tide of US Presidential electoral sentiment in favor of Lincoln’s re-election. If Atlanta had remained in Confederate hands it is conceivable that Lincoln might have lost to Democrat George G. McClellan and the course of the war would have change dramatically.
As for deference to seniority, rather than merit, this theme runs throughout Davis’ personnel choices and was a constant cause of friction among his competing leaders.
What are the implications of these lessons for organizational planning in business? Effective delegation is of course key and success in this skill requires the ability to balance intense focus on results and strategic vision with motivation and guidance of subordinates. Personnel selection is also a key skill and time invested for success in these decisions pays greater dividends than almost any other area. Creating a team that shares a strategic vision for success and possesses demonstrated merit necessary to implement the strategy must be a first priority.