The Battle of Antietam: an interview with Tom Vossler

Colonel Tom Vossler has long been the lead historian of Diamond6 TVossler_Headshot_2016Leadership. He has taken many of our groups through various Civil War battlefields, providing a historical playing field in which to discuss important leadership lessons.

In the past he has teamed up with Carol Reardon, the George Winfree Professor of American History at Pennsylvania State University, to write a history of the Battle of Gettysburg—A Field Guide to Gettysburg: Experiencing the Battlefield through Its History, Places, and People. They have a1rjerl95mlcome together once again to write A Field Guide to Antietam: Experiencing the Battlefield through Its History, Places, and People.

Diamond6 sat down with Col. Vossler to discuss Antietam, its place in Civil War history, and its leadership lessons. September 17 will be the battle’s 154th anniversary.

Why is Antietam important in the context of the Civil War?

This campaign, this battle, is part of a larger picture called the Maryland Campaign of 1862. There has been a string of Confederate victories as they cross the Potomac to begin this new campaign. What is also important to note is that while the Maryland Campaign is being fought, out west there’s a Confederate campaign for the invasion of Kentucky.

These are two simultaneous Confederate advances into two border states, Kentucky and Maryland. From a political and military strategic standpoint, we must remember that President Lincoln said he must have Kentucky or else he would lose its support.

This battle forces the Confederacy back, which is why this battle is so important. The incursion into the border states is turned back by Union forces.

What are four key moments that turn the tide in this battle?

First, this battle takes place on September 17, following the South Mountain battles, which really disrupted Lee’s plans to invade Pennsylvania. He doesn’t make it that far. Meanwhile, General McClellan, the Union commander, could’ve attacked on September 16, but delayed one full day to get his forces ready. But if you flip that coin, that affords Lee another 24 hours in which to get his forces to the battlefield.

The second moment also has to do with McClellan. During the battle, there is an opportunity for him to commit his reserves to a weak point in the Confederate line, but he hesitates and then doesn’t follow through. He fears if he commits his reserve forces, he won’t have any later. That could have split the Confederate defense. Instead it stays in place and frustrates his movements.

The third key moment is the failure of General Ambrose Burnside to make his attack across the lower bridge. There are three bridges—the upper, the middle, the lower—and his forces were at the lower bridge. He had repeated orders to get across the Antietam to attack the Confederate force on the other side of the creek. He delays, and his delay eats up several hours in the battle. This then ties into that fourth moment.

Number four is the timely arrival of an entire Confederate division commanded by General A.P. Hill. They have forced march from Harper’s Ferry, which the Confederates had captured earlier, and arrived on the battlefield just in time to turn back the advance of the Burnside’s 9th Corps.

There is no clear victor in this. From a larger overview, a strategic and operational overview, what is gained is that Lee’s army is forced out of Maryland and the Potomac River Line is restored.

After the battle, what changes do we see in the Union and Confederate leadership?

In the days and weeks after the battle, President Lincoln goes to Antietam to inquire of General McClellan why he has not followed Lee across the river into Virginia. McClellan essentially sits there with his command. He does not go after Lee, and this frustrates President Lincoln. The end result of McClellan’s delay is Lincoln relieves him of command and appoints a new commander. This leads to a continual roll over of leadership. By the time we get to Gettysburg, none of the higher level Union leadership remains.

The same thing happens in the Confederate Army. They lose a number of key leaders when they reorganize the army. They reorganize in a positive way. The replacement of the leadership leads to a slew of powerful victories.

The leadership question is what fascinates me most about Antietam—figuring out where the leaders who were at Gettysburg were at Antietam.

How then does this battle relate to today’s leaders?

What we’re talking about is the growth of leaders and the sorting out of those less capable. They’re not rising to the top anymore. They’re staying in the same position or getting washed out of the organization. The leadership over time gets better. You can watch this happen from First Bull Run, the first major land battle of the Civil War, as they progress through the war.

For today’s leaders that translates into organizational effectiveness, whether we’re talking about a school district or a corporation. At Diamond6, we’re striving to make them effective organizations through the development of their leadership. These leaders in the army, like in any organization, wherever they are they’re being developed and creating a succession of command. Every organization must think about what they’re doing to allow their leadership to mature and grow. That concept is thoroughly explored at Antietam.

Click here to purchase A Field Guide to Antietam: Experiencing the Battlefield through Its History, Places, and People.

 

The Significance of Ethics for Military and Professional Life

Ethics is of utmost importance: ask the CEO’s of leading corporations or America’s military leaders. Yet, at the same time, we might just as well dismally conclude that ethics is of no significance whatsoever! Just witness the private proclamations and even more the behavior of some of those same kinds of leaders when it comes to understanding, believing, and practicing what they preach.

Ethics is a bit like one of its key components: lying and truth-telling. No one publicly celebrates or advocates telling lies. Everyone testifies to the importance of the Truth. Yet everyone lies, and does so often: to spouses, children, friends, business associates, and the IRS – and usually feels that it is necessary or justified – at least in their very own “unique and exceptional” individual case.

Is this simply hypocrisy on our part? We say one thing and do the opposite? Or is it evidence of something even more complex.

I suggest that anyone puzzled or troubled by this apparent paradox simply try cross-examining those who proclaim to believe in the importance of ethics, and ask them further what they themselves understand and mean by “ethics.”

I predict that you will get a wide range of responses. Some people will quote a dictionary or encyclopedia definition, about living a “good and honorable life,” or consistently trying to “do what is right.” Others may cite beliefs in the inviolability of certain moral principles (such as “truth-telling,” above!), and go on to relate these moral principles to important religious or philosophical teachings from wise men or great leaders. Others may think that the lifelong cultivation of moral virtues and “good character” is the key to ethics.

But they will seldom cite the same religions, the same “great leaders,” or the same moral principles. They will often disagree, in fact, on what virtues are most important (is it courage or honor, loyalty or trustworthiness?). And this is because, finally, each person you consult will think these are all matters of highly variable personal conviction or opinion. In fact, about the only thing that people seem to agree on is the belief that “ethics” is a matter of personal or cultural opinions about right and wrong, and that there is little or no commonality among or between distinct individuals or cultures other than what “ethics” itself actually is.

That view is widely held. But that does not mean it is true or accurate.

What it does mean is that those who believe it are exempt from having to search deeply for better answers or firmer foundations for justifying moral beliefs. Instead, we are free to attribute bad behavior to the different beliefs about ethics by others respecting what constitutes right and wrong, rather than to wonder whether they (or we) might be mistaken about some of those beliefs. As a result, apart perhaps from self-interest, there seems to be little in the way of a shared conception of the Good at which right moral actions should aim.

Interestingly, such views fare less well within well-defined professions, like medicine or the military. Members of a professional community, engaged in a common enterprise like health care or defense of the nation, are less free to “go their own ways” with respect to moral beliefs. They share a conception of the Good at which their common professional activity aims: e.g., the health of their patients, the security of their citizens (in these two instances). They are thus compelled, whether they wish to or not, or always realize it or not, to engage with each other in a search for better or worse means of attaining or achieving those ends.

Assuming only a good-faith commitment to the practice of their profession, that is to say, the members of that profession are compelled to engage with each other about the proper practice of their profession. They are led to generate a common code of practice and ideals of best practice. And often, in reflecting upon some of the worst tragedies and disasters that befall individual members of their profession, they are led to further specify clearly the boundaries of acceptable professional practice, and the definition(s) of professional malfeasance. (This is what doctors did, for example, after World War II, in what is known as the “Nuremburg Code.”)

But that is precisely what “ethics” itself is: the discernment, through reflection upon our practices, of both the limits on acceptable conduct, as well as upon the standards and ideals upheld within the best practices of our profession. Often this process involves teaching these ideals and limitations on acceptable behavior to new recruits or initiates as an orientation to the profession, or else “publishing” them to the wider community in the form of a Code of Ethical Conduct to help our fellow citizens know who we are, and the values for which we stand (as well as to remind and guide our own members toward the fulfillment of these ideals).

At least in these important instances, where there is some prospect of sharing a common notion of the Good, there is less debate about what “ethics” itself is. “Ethics” consists of a commonly-forged and widely-shared conception of proper conduct of our lives and affairs in the wider world. In the wider world, in turn, we rightly hold to account the physician or the soldier – or for that matter, the teacher or the clergyman, the lawyer or the journalist – for living and practicing in accordance with the highest ideals of their chosen professional practice, while simultaneously avoiding transgressing the limits on acceptable professional conduct.

This is “professional ethics.” We are entitled to hold ourselves accountable for living up to these standards, or, when required, to sit in judgment of those who fail to do so. There is nothing self-righteous or sanctimonious about demanding that we all live according to the rules, laws, and ideals to which we have all voluntarily agreed, and that we all have freely shared in forging.

This, in turn, offers at least a clue about what “ethics” itself consists of in the wider world: an even broader call each and every one of us – whether doctor, lawyer, soldier, or citizen – to commit ourselves to proper, principled action, while continuously reflecting on the better and worse ways of living well and doing Good in our world, striving always toward the realization of the highest ideals of being a human being, as such. That is the proper understanding, and the proper practice, of “ethics.”


George Lucas is Distinguished Chair in Ethics Emeritus at the U.S. Naval Academy, and Visiting Distinguished Research Professor at Notre Dame University. His latest book is Military Ethics: What Everyone Needs to Know (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015).

Lucas's book comes out today.
Lucas’s book comes out today. Click here to purchase. 

The Critical Importance of Mentors

tutor-407361_1280I lost two people who were very, very important to me last fall. They had both been my mentors. The first was my mom who has been my personal mentor throughout my life. She guided me from birth and sacrificed enormously on my behalf. There is absolutely no doubt I would have never accomplished the things I have done without her wise counsel and assistance.

The second was a senior officer who took me “under his wing” when I was a young cadet at West Point. Don was a professional mentor I could always turn to for guidance and counsel specifically about my military career. He also provided critical advice and analysis for many of the national security issues that I became involved in while working in the Pentagon, National Security Council Staff in the White House, and other efforts that I have been involved in since retiring from the military. I always knew that he was only a phone call away despite the fact that we were not frequently assigned to the same location and might not see each other for several years. I could always call him day-or-night to seek his advice and assistance.

But what exactly is “mentoring” and why is it important? Mentoring has been described as a dynamic relationship in which a more experienced person (the mentor) acts as a guide, role model, teacher, and sponsor of a less experienced person (the mentee). It is based on several distinct elements including:

  • Reciprocity, collegiality, authenticity, and mutuality.
  • Intentional role modeling
  • A “safe harbor” for self-exploration (disclosure)
  • Transformation particularly of the mentee’s professional identity.
  • A connection that endures.

The Harvard Business Review conducted a survey of 1,250 top executives as listed in The Wall Street Journal. It discovered that 65 percent had at least one important mentor. Furthermore, the analysis suggested that executives with mentors had higher salaries, more rapid promotions, greater achievement of career objectives, and higher overall job AND life satisfaction. It has also been discovered that organizations with a culture of mentorship have lower attrition rates.

Through this relationship, mentees seek better job performance, which may include greater involvement in professional organizations. They also want help with networking, job opportunities, and finding greater satisfaction in the organization they are part of. Over time they will likely want assistance in achieving a stronger sense of professional identity, more productivity, and having a greater impact.

I would argue that having a mentor and eventually becoming a mentor is particularly important for those who are members of one of the following professions: the military, medicine, education, the clergy, or law enforcement (lawyers, judges, and police). Such occupations are focused on the continued development of the abstract knowledge associated with the profession and the critical service it provides society. Consequently, the development of the next generation in the profession is a critical requirement. I was amazed how quickly I found other younger officers seeking my advice and counsel as I progressed through my career, and I am confident that most teachers, doctors, lawyers, ministers, and policemen have had the same experience.

Effective mentors must first and foremost take the time to get to know the mentee. Spend the time to learn their strengths and weaknesses as well as their goals. In doing so the mentor must “affirm” the path the mentee is taking while gently shaping as well as redirecting them away from unrealistic aspirations. The mentor is both a teacher and a coach. He or she must look for “teaching moments” during their time with the mentee and if working in the same organization demystify the “system” for the mentee while providing the “lay of the land”. The mentor must be prepared to offer counsel in difficulty times but challenge the mentee in order to stimulate their growth. When appropriate, the mentor should actively sponsor the mentee and hopefully match opportunities with their “dreams”. This may also be part of pointing out milestones and successes to the mentee while helping them to objectively step back and appreciate their own progress. Finally, an effective mentor has to be humble and have patience. He or she must be open to feedback particularly as the mentee matures. Nobody wants a “perfect” mentor. Humble mentors model with their own fallibility. Important qualities for effective mentors include both patience and good emotional intelligence.

Good leaders are not only effective mentors but also seek to create a mentoring culture in their organization. This is difficult to do but essential nonetheless. Leaders must continually stress its importance and how it is closely related to the organization’s mission, vision, and values. It may also require not only traditional mentoring but also peer and team mentorship. An effective program will seek to select mentors carefully, train/support them, prepare mentees, and assess/reward mentors for their efforts. It should also be a topic during annual performance review discussions, and many organizations conduct annual surveys in order to ascertain the level of satisfaction and experience with mentoring. Finally, it should be part of all exit interviews when a member of the organization is departing.

Having mentors was critical in my personal and professional development. Being a mentor is crucial to the success of any organization and, I would argue, a professional responsibility. An expert on mentoring described it as “the seal of approval.” He further observed, “to have a mentor is to be among the blessed. Not to have a mentor is to be damned to eternal oblivion or at least to a mid-level status.”

Furthermore, we would all be wise to remember the words of the author, Robert Louis Stevenson:

He has achieved success who has lived well, laughed often and loved much;
Who has gained the respect of intelligent men and the love of little children;
Who has filled his niche and accomplished his task;
Who has left the world better than he found it;
Who has looked for the best in others and given the best he had;
Whose life was an inspiration,
Whose memory is a benediction.

Stevenson was clearly describing a mentor. I know because having mentors has been invaluable to me, and I only hope that I have also fulfilled my responsibility of being a mentor to others along the way.

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Dr. Jeff McCausland is Founder and CEO of Diamond6 Leadership and Strategy, LLC. His most challenging and unique leadership experience was leading and commanding 750 troops into the first Gulf War. He is proud to say that everyone came home healthy and safe.

What can corporate leaders learn from the military?

military corporate

I was recently asked to give a talk by a corporate leader on this question and spent a great deal of time thinking about it. Having spent over thirty years in the US Army and commanded at several levels to include leading soldiers in combat, I hoped that I would have something useful to share. Since retiring from the military I have had the opportunity to speak on leadership and conduct many leadership workshops, so the question intrigued me.

One thing that makes examining the military organizations interesting is that they are all the same. A mechanize infantry or artillery battalion is designed respectively to have the same number of soldiers, same equipment, and an equal number of junior leaders. Each of them is supposed to have specific training and experience that qualifies them for their position. Despite this fact, some units perform better than others even if they are in the same location and have the same mission. The difference is often leadership throughout the organization. President Dwight Eisenhower defined leadership as “the ability to decide what has to be done, and then get people to want to do it.” This power is often the ingredient that separates success from failure. So what can corporate leaders learn by looking at the military?

Leadership is “background music”

Author John W. Gardner once noted that the first and last task of any leader is to keep “hope alive.” I had the honor of working in the Pentagon while General Colin Powell was Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and a few years ago had the opportunity to have a private dinner with him. General Powell used to frequently say, “Optimism is a force multiplier.” The members of your organization may reach your level of optimism and enthusiasm but will only rarely exceed it. An effective leader knows that he or she must present a strong belief that the team will be successful and keep their doubts private.

Management by walking around….

Yogi Berra once said, “you can observe a lot by watching….” The film Captain Phillips, the true story of the captain of a supertanker ship, is a perfect example. He and his crew were taken hostage by pirates off the coast of Somalia and were eventually rescued by the US Navy. Phillips was a very successful ship captain and displayed a great deal of courage during this ordeal. When asked what he thought was the primary reason he had been successful for many years, he observed that the first thing he did every morning and the last thing he did every night was to walk the full length of the ship. He went into every compartment and spoke to every member of the crew.

Successful military commanders do the same thing. Clearly, when you are “managing by walking around” you are looking for potential problems. But the effective leader is also looking for successes and opportunities. Which young soldier is doing a great job and should be complimented? Which young officer needs a few minutes of mentoring about his or her future? Which NCO has a personal problem and needs someone to discuss it with?

Adaptability beats efficiency

I had the good fortune to get to know General Stan McChrystal, former US commander in Afghanistan while I was on active duty and am a greater admirer of his. Early in the war in Afghanistan, Stan said, “In 2004 we were successful in all our operations…but we were losing the war.”

Leadership is often about dealing with change, and I once worked for a general who used to say, “If you don’t like change…you are going to like irrelevance even less.” Leaders must lead and manage change in their organization. It is one of their fundamental responsibilities. But they must also establish a climate of initiative and innovation that allow their organization not only to succeed but also to keep succeeding. Military history is replete with defeats that were due to a failure to innovate and change.

In 1903 Henry Ford attempted to get a loan from a Michigan bank to establish his car company. The banker rejected his application and told him, “The horse is here to stay… the motor car is a fad.” Leadership is the ability to know when to accept change, and when to ignore the banker.

Lincoln and Strategic Vision

The movie Lincoln is a case study in how a leader creates a vision for an organization, communicates that vision, and evolves the vision over time.  Lincoln realized a leader must develop and articulate a vision in a fashion that followers can “digest” and accept.  The leader must also take advantage of important moments to communicate changes to the vision.  These refinements must be both timely and timed to occur when the organization is focused on an intermediate step.

Abraham Lincoln arrived in Washington in the spring of 1861 firmly opposed to slavery.  Still in his first inaugural address he stated that he did not intend to interfere with slavery where it existed.  Rather he described a vision focused on preserving the Union and preventing war.  He knew that to argue for the elimination of the so-called “peculiar institution” at that moment would insure war, prevent any possibility of reconciliation with Southern states, and might not be widely accepted even in the North.

Following the attack on Ft. Sumter the nation rallied to preserve the Union.  By the summer of 1862, however, Lincoln realized that the time had come to expand on his initial vision and began secret discussions with his cabinet on the Emancipation Proclamation.  Late that summer he achieved agreement on a draft document and announced it following a Union victory at the Battle of Antietam in September.  Still it only freed slaves in the “states under rebellion” and did not go into effect until 1 January 1863.  Consequently, it had no effect on slaves in the border states and if any southern state had returned to the Union in the intervening months they could have retained their slaves.  When any leader announces an evolution in the organization’s vision it is met with opposition.  Frederick Douglass (himself a former slave) ridiculed the President for not ending slavery throughout the entire nation.  Others who had supported the war to preserve the Union announced their firm opposition to any effort to expand the goals of the war to end slavery.

On a cold day in the autumn of 1863 Lincoln mounted a stage at the Gettysburg cemetery to make “a few appropriate remarks”.  He delivered an address of 272 words which may be the clearest and most concise statement of a strategic vision in the English language.  He began by telling the audience where they and the country had been – four score and seven years ago which connected these remarks with the Declaration of Independence and its opening statement of essential values – we hold these truths to be self-evident that all Men are created equal.  He then moved to where the nation was that afternoon.  Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war.  Lincoln concluded with a statement of a revised vision for the future.  That this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth. 

By the spring of 1864 the Union Army was bogged down outside Richmond in a series of bloody battles of attrition. Many Republicans had begun to argue that Lincoln should not be nominated for a second term.  The fall of Atlanta in September to General Sherman, however, restored the nation’s confidence.  Lincoln was reelected President on a campaign slogan of “Liberty and the Union” which summarized the theme of the Gettysburg Address.

As dramatically portrayed in the movie the stage was set for the debate over an amendment to end slavery forever in January 1865.  Many of Lincoln’s supporters argued that this was premature and urged him to wait until the war was over.  But the President overrode the opposition and succeeded in securing passage of the amendment.

On March 4, 1865 Lincoln ascended the podium at the Capitol for his second inaugural address.  The war had lasted four years and over 600,000 Americans had died, but Union armies appeared close to victory.  Everyone in the audience had lost someone – brother, father, son, nephew, etc.  The President could called for retribution against Confederate leaders (Lee, Davis, etc.), and the audience would have likely endorsed the sentiment.  But Lincoln returned to his initial vision of preserving the Union.  In 703 words carefully crafted words the re-elected president delivered what he believed to be his finest speech.  He would anchor the hope of the nation’s future with malice toward none and with charity towards all.  In the days that followed the pace of events would accelerate.  In late March Lincoln met with his principal military leaders – General Grant, Admiral Porter, and General Sherman to discuss the end of the war.  As he departed the President gave his commanders his final guidance – Let them up easy.  They would follow this counsel in the terms they offered during the surrender of Confederate armies.

On April 9, 1865 General Robert E. Lee surrendered the Army of Northern Virginia to General Grant at Appomattox Courthouse.  The nation rejoiced and on the following evening there were fireworks and parades in Washington.  Crowds assembled on the White House lawn, and Lincoln delivered his final speech.  He reiterated his desire to reconcile the southern states into the Union, but used this opportunity to expand the vision once more.  Lincoln argued that in the war’s aftermath the nation should offer former slaves that had served in the Union Army (over 200,000) full rights of citizenship.  This might seem a logical next step that would be non-controversial, but this was not the case in 1865.  Lincoln knew he was setting the stage for another bitter political debate.

In the crowd that evening was a well-known actor, John Wilkes Booth.   Later that evening Booth met with his fellow conspirators and announced, “that is the last speech that man will ever give”.  Four nights later Booth shot Lincoln at Ford’s Theater, and the President died early the next morning, Good Friday.  Sadly, the vision that Abraham Lincoln had created, evolved, and communicated to the nation would largely remain unrealized for the next hundred years.  Not until the civil rights movement of the 1960’s would the nation return fully to the ideals he had articulated.  It remains a vision of equality and human dignity that we continue to strive for even today.

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Dr. Jeff McCausland is Founder and CEO of Diamond6 Leadership and Strategy, LLC. His most challenging and unique leadership experience was leading and commanding 750 troops into the first Gulf War. He is proud to say that everyone came home healthy and safe.
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