Leadership Lessons from the Alamo
The Alamo fell after a 13-day siege March 6, 1836 — 180 years ago this month. All of the defenders were killed, though many historians believe that a few survived the fighting and were later executed on the order of General Santa Anna. These included Jim Bowie, William Travis, and Davy Crockett. The total number of Mexican casualties is unknown. Santa Anna claimed only 70 of his men were killed, but there are a number of accounts by other soldiers and inhabitants of the city that suggest over 400 were killed in the fighting. Susanna Dickinson (the wife of an Alamo defender), her infant daughter, as well as Colonel Travis’ slave Joe survived and were released by Santa Anna.
There are numerous leadership lessons/insights that can be taken from the siege and battle but let me provide five:
The importance of the leader’s vision. Every organization needs a vision that defines where the organization is going. One of the most important tasks of any leader is not only to articulate his/her vision but also to emphasize it when speaking to the members of his/her team. An effective vision must provide clarity of purpose and be communicable, comprehensive, and transformational.
Stephen Austin is in many ways the father of Texas. He arrived in 1822 and accepted a land grant from the Mexican government. He fulfilled the requirements to become a Mexican citizen and guaranteed the same for the other immigrants that accompanied him. Over the next decade he would encourage other Americans to settle in Texas and would become a leader of independence. Later in his life Austin would say:
“The greatest consolation I ever expect to derive from my labors in the wilderness of this province will arise from the conviction that I have benefitted many of my fellow beings, and laid the foundation for the settlement of one of the finest countries in the world.”
How do you identify future leaders? This is a real challenge for any leader. The leaders at the Alamo and for the entire Texas revolution were somewhat surprising. Jim Bowie had been accused of being a land swindler and being involved in the slave trade. It is alleged that he was a friend of Jean Lafitte’s — the pirate! William Travis had abandoned his wife in Alabama and fled to Texas. She would later follow to divorce him. Davy Crockett was a famous frontiersman and Congressman, but prior to coming to Texas in 1836 Crockett would lose a reelection campaign. Prior to leaving Tennessee, he allegedly told some of his constituents, “You may all go to hell, and I will go to Texas!” Sam Houston was not at the Alamo but would lead the Texas revolutionary army to success at the Battle of San Jacinto. Houston had been governor of Tennessee but resigned after his wife deserted him. He became an alcoholic and returned to live with the Cherokees where he had spent time as a boy. He had come to Texas to make a new start in 1832 and after the success of the revolution became the first President of the Republic of Texas.
The selection and development of the next generation of leaders in any organization may be the most important task of any leader. Most organizations depend on resumes and interviews that are largely focused on what an individual has accomplished in their career to that point. But the Alamo suggests that Peter Drucker, the internationally renowned management consultant, was correct when he said, “experience only matters if you believe the future will look like the past.” The hiring and promotion process must include some consideration of individual competence, but it also must include an examination of potential, interest, drive, ethics, etc.
Critical thinking. Effective leaders should always challenge the implicit and explicit assumptions of their organizations. He/she must constantly be reminded that critical thinking is important to the success or failure of the organization. This is the leader’s ability to receive information, evaluate the information, recall prior relevant information, assimilate the information by comparing differences and determining cause/effect, and evaluating the information in order to make timely decisions and solve problems.
The Texans assumed Santa Anna would not lead an army into Texas until late spring. But the Mexican president surprised them by leading his army across 300 miles of difficult terrain during a bitter winter. Colonel Travis, commander of the Alamo, ignored reports from his Texcano scouts that the Mexican Army approached. Santa Anna might have totally surprised the Texans had a rainstorm not bogged down his advance a scant eight miles from San Antonio. All leaders must keep in mind that despite their best plans and efforts their competition or opponent also “gets a vote.” As you make decision and adjust your plans, they can do so as well.
Diversity on the team can be a strength. We often think or talk about the defenders of the Alamo as “Texans.” This is inaccurate. Half of the 180 defenders came from the southern portion of the United States and twenty from the North. 29 were from Tennessee. Many were not Americans including a number of Texcanos (Mexicans who had chosen to fight for independence). Forty came from Great Britain (eleven of them were Irish). There were a few Germans and one Dane.
Successful leaders realize that there is strength in diversity. But diversity is often times not just ethnicity or race. It also includes the number of men and women as well as sexual orientation. Diversity can also be considered for the various generations that are on the team from the Baby Boomer to the Millennial. Diversity allows an organization to draw on differing perspectives and insights. Furthermore, diverse organizations frequently have an advantage in terms of innovation and new ideas. But this requires leadership that, beyond underscoring the importance of diversity, emphasizes the requirement to help members of the team learn both the importance of diversity as well as the need for team harmony in order to be effective.
The power of communications. Communications is fundamental to leadership and is a skill that leaders can develop. Modern leaders must deal with multiple forms of communication — written, oral, telephone, email, social media, etc. The effective leader must decide which is appropriate for each situation. At a minimum, the leader must frequently communicate the organization’s mission, vision, and values to all of the members of his/her team.
By February 24, 1836 Colonel William Travis realized that the situation at the Alamo was becoming increasingly desperate. He sent a famous letter to the convention of Texas patriots that were meeting at Washington-on-the-Brazos. In the letter Travis describes the mounting threat the overwhelming Mexican force poised to the defenders and requested reinforcements. He concludes the letter with the famous line “Victory or Death!” A rider departed the Alamo under the cover of darkness that evening and delivered it to the convention. By March 16 the letter and Travis’ final words had spread across Texas to New Orleans and from there across the United States. It would become a rallying cry for Texas independence.
On March 6, 2016 I encourage you to take a moment and reflect on this famous battle that occurred nearly two centuries ago, the men who died, and the lessons we can learn. Some historians argue this was one of the most important battles in the 19th century. The Battle of the Alamo allowed time for the Texas Army to prepare and eventually defeat Santa Anna at San Jacinto roughly a month later. This resulted in the creation of the Republic of Texas that would join the United States in 1845. The subsequent war with Mexico ended not only with an American victory, but the United States expanded its territory from the Atlantic to the Pacific. This relatively small battle and the efforts of the 180 defenders of the Alamo set the stage for the establishment of the continental United States.
Dr. Jeffrey McCausland, Founder and CEO of Diamond6 Leadership, LLC is a retired Army Colonel with over 30 years of unique and challenging leadership experiences. As a retired military officer and veteran Jeff’s work has taken him all over the world serving in a variety of command and staff positions in places such as the on National Security Council Staff, U.S. Army War College in Carlisle, PA, and the Pentagon.