Winston Churchill’s famous quote “You can always count on Americans to do the right thing – after they’ve tried everything else” suggests that American’s respond well to a crisis. That of course, is a kind interpretation and in general, a good thing, but we shouldn’t postpone our tough decisions until a crisis is upon us.
One of my favorite Civil War stories details the leadership of a 60 year-old civil engineer turned soldier, by the name of General George S. Greene. It was Greene’s defense of the right flank of Culp’s Hill in Gettysburg that stands out as the ultimate lesson of preparing for the inevitable changes in any battle.
You see senior leadership (Gen Meade) shifted almost the entire force from Greens location (the right flank) to the left flank; leaving him a lone brigade of 1,350 New Yorkers from which to defend a one-half-mile line on Culp’s Hill.
Here is the part of the story where we all say, “of course we would have done it that way”, when in reality, most of us would have never been so well prepared.
Later that evening, and after the Union troops had been shifted from right to left, an entire Confederate division (perhaps 10,000 strong) appeared at the base of the hill and attacked. It’s at this point that we begin to get a glimpse of Green’s foresight. Fortunately for the Union, Greene demonstrated good sense, a knack for planning and a keen eye for preparation by insisting that his troops construct strong field fortifications, despite a lack of interest in doing so from his next generation leaders and virtually everyone in his command. If left to their own initiative, Greene’s commanders would have patiently waited at the top of the hill under a false sense of security.
General Greene’s preparations proved decisive and his brigade held off multiple attacks for hours that evening and into the next day. Under his leadership, his troops had prepared during the quiet times for the inevitable crisis to come.
So the questions remains, do you wait for the crisis to show how well you lead or do you prepare when given the opportunity?