Leadership Lessons From The Battle of Chattanooga

As a public relations professional for more than two decades, I believe our industry does a solid job of providing information and training on new trends, strategies, tools and techniques shaping our profession. But one area where we are lacking is in leadership development. In my opinion, I believe we can do more to help PR pros at every level become better leaders.

Through my consulting work with Battlefield Leadership, I have the opportunity to talk about historic battles, the people that fought them and the leadership lessons learned from those struggles. This fall marks the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Chattanooga, which took place Nov. 23-15, 1863. This historic battle provides a number of important leadership lessons.

Indeed, the future 18th president of the United States, U.S. Grant, and his actions at Chattanooga can serve as a case study for any aspiring leader.

Grant arrived in Chattanooga on Oct. 23, 1863, to save an entire Union army on the brink of destruction. More than 40,000 Union men, demoralized after suffering defeat at the Battle of Chickamauga during three bloody days in September, had retreated and taken refuge within the city confines. Encircled by the Confederates, the Yankees were on half rations, lacked adequate clothing for the coming winter and were constantly shelled by the rebels who had placed cannon atop scenic Lookout Mountain. The siege of Chattanooga by Confederate General Braxton Bragg was slowly choking the life out of the men in blue.

Against this perilous backdrop, the hard-driving, no-nonsense 41-year old “Unconditional Surrender” Grant was determined to break the siege. But he knew the task would not be easy. In his personal memoirs years after the war, Grant summed up the situation in Chattanooga by writing, “It looked indeed as if but two courses were open: one to starve, the other to surrender or be captured.”

As we commemorate the battle’s 150th anniversary this year, we are well served to understand the leadership decisions Grant made in Chattanooga. Three leadership lessons learned from Grant and the battle include:

Know Your Priorities – Grant’s first priority was to feed his men, restore their confidence and get them fit for fighting their way out of the city. Within days of his arrival, Grant gave the go-ahead for a daring water-borne assault at a place called Brown’s Ferry, which opened up a line of supply to a Union supply depot at Bridgeport, Ala. By focusing on this priority and achieving success, Grant could now concentrate on the bigger task of defeating the Army of Tennessee and breaking the siege.

Have a Plan, But Know It Will Change – Grant’s plan for breaking the siege called for his colleague and friend, Union General William T. Sherman, to conduct a surprise attack at the north end of Missionary Ridge. This plan was foiled not once, but twice, first by Sherman’s own incompetence on Nov. 24 and then by the highly skilled Confederate General Patrick Cleburne on Nov. 25. Despite these setbacks, Grant was flexible enough to consider other alternatives to achieving his objective. This included calling on Major General George H. Thomas and his men to attack the center of Missionary Ridge. Thomas’s men, originally slated to perform only a supporting role to Sherman, now took the lead, albeit in an unintended way. (The Union soldiers were ordered to proceed only to the base of the mountain, not to proceed up its heights. After reaching the base, however, the men decided to charge up the ridge on their own accord and against orders.) As it turned out, these soldiers attacking the center of the mountain became the fighting force that routed the Confederate army and broke the siege.

Taking Action is Better Than Not Taking Action –Grant’s instructions for Thomas’ men to take action, while impromptu, confusing and hasty, kept the rebels off-balance and on the defensive. Grant was bold (his critics might say careless or incautious) in taking proactive measures to dictate the kind of battle he wanted to fight. Business leaders today, however, might appreciate Grant’s decisiveness, as it could be said that he lived by the “70-30” rule, which states that if you have 70 percent of all the information you need to make a decision, you should do it.

Today, 150 years later, it seems like a foregone conclusion that Grant would break the siege and force the Confederates to retreat back into Georgia. But at the time, an entire Union army and even the fate of the United States rested in the balance.

History teaches us many things. In this case, it’s clear that leadership made the difference in Chattanooga. Leadership still makes the difference today. It’s my hope that our industry can begin to shine a brighter light on leadership training and development for the thousands professionals who practice the craft of public relations.

What do you think? Is there enough leadership training and development for PR professionals today?

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