September marked the 150th anniversary of what is arguably the most decisive battle during the American Civil War – Antietam. Many historians might contest this point and suggest that Gettysburg was the “high watermark of the Confederacy”. Still a Union defeat at Antietam would have further delayed Lincoln’s decision to announce the Emancipation Proclamation which redefined the purpose of the war. It could have also encouraged Britain and France to recognize the Confederacy as an independent nation that could have led to their intervention. Finally, another Federal defeat in September 1862 would have further inspired those in the North who opposed the war to greater success in that fall’s congressional and state elections. Sadly, Antietam holds an even greater distinction in American history. It was the bloodiest single day in the American Civil War. Over 25,000 Union and Confederate soldiers were killed or wounded in one day of fighting.
But historically wars also have encouraged innovation and the need for leaders to deal with new and frequently enormous problems. The mass casualties suffered by both sides resulted in rapid advances not only in medicine but also the management and treatment of these huge numbers. For example, it was during the Battle of Antietam that a young woman from Washington, Clara Barton, would appear with a wagon of supplies to treat the wounded. Her efforts during the remainder of the war would eventually result in the creation of the American Red Cross.
It was also at about this time that a young Union Army Captain, Jonathan Letterman, would begin to ponder how to deal with this “wicked problem”. Letterman would convince the Union Army leadership to assign a doctor to each regiment, organize medical teams that were the advent of today’s medics, and invent the field ambulance. He also formulated a new method for dealing with mass casualties known as “triage” that General Omar Bradley, the famous World War II commander, would later describe as the greatest innovation in military medicine.
Letterman argued that military doctors and aid workers must be trained to quickly assess the extent of a soldier’s injuries and “triage” or classify the wounded into three groups. First, were those so badly wounded that they were deemed terminal with no hope of recovery. These were managed by chaplains and nurses who could make them as comfortable as possible. Second, were wounded whose treatment could be delayed. They might require some immediate treatment to stem the bleeding, but this could be handled by nurses or medical orderlies. Third, the soldiers with injuries that if they were immediately addressed had a good chance of survival. They were moved quickly surgery and the immediate attention of the available doctors.
“Triage” saved countless lives during the Civil War and in conflicts ever since. But it is also a concept that leaders can apply as they deal with a mounting number of problems that clog their inbox on a daily basis. Leaders must quickly scan their email or office inbox and ask themselves the following questions:
- First: Which problems are terminal or have been overcome by events? There still may be issues of so-called “consequence management”, that may need to be confronted, but these can often be handled by others in the organization.
- Second: Which problems can be delayed or deferred? We sometimes need to consider whether a problem is “ripe”? Is it time to deal with it or should we let it evolve? Can others in the organization deal with this problem which will both free up critical time for senior leaders (like the few doctors at Antietam) and allow subordinates an opportunity to both better develop their potential and confidence?
- Third: Is this an issue that demands the immediate attention of senior leaders? Does this problem directly affect the essence of our organization, or is this an opportunity that the organization cannot fail to miss?
Making this calculation is invaluable to leaders. It further forces them to understand that some problems are “wicked problems” like mass casualties during the American Civil War. These are those challenges that are probably never “solved” but are “managed”. For example, our national leaders will likely never solve the threat posed by AIDS, poverty, world hunger, etc. But the importance of these problems demands every effort to “manage” them as effectively as possible and move us in the direction of a long term solution. Every organization has such problems that will unlikely be “solved” at least during the term of the current leadership, but they must be “managed”. Failing to do so can have dramatic consequences just as it did on the.
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.