I’ve written recently about leadership and my opinions about the important principles that make a good leader. I explored communications as one guiding principle and this week I’ll write about timing, patience and decisiveness.
Great leadership is often a result of the moment. A great leader may spend hours in planning an effort or a specific outcome, only to have the effort or outcome go wrong because of bad timing. Sun Tzu, the famous ancient Chinese military general, in his book “The Art of War,” states clearly: “every plan is a good plan until you meet the enemy.” Simplified, every plan that is well thought out has its time; or because of bad timing any plan can go awry. Time can be the enemy.
Take “Stonewall” Jackson’s end run at Chancellorsville; the timing was both perfect and imperfect during the same event. Catching Major General O.O. Howard’s flank “in the air” while Howard’s men were preparing supper was the perfect time for an attack. Starting the attack with only two hours of sunlight remaining in the day — a not so perfect time — may have contributed to Jackson’s untimely death and allowed the Union Army to regroup and conduct a somewhat orderly retreat the following day.
While guiding my students through leadership studies, I often relate that an A paper late is an F; and a C paper on time can be an A. Just ask any contractor about timeliness in relation to the bidding process. Also, “if you’re five minutes early you’re 10 minutes late” is an old adage that relates to everyone. I remember a simple scenario where my watch and the airline’s watch were not in sync — I missed the plane even though I thought I was early.
Union Maj. Gen. Lew Wallace learned a great lesson about timeliness at the battle of Shiloh during the American Civil War. The lesson learned was “how to lose a battle” — nearly.
Wallace, later to become a renowned author with his novel “Ben Hur,” took the right road that ultimately became the wrong road and never arrived on the battlefield during the first day of battle. On that first day the Confederates nearly drove the Union Army into the Tennessee River. Had Wallace arrived on time in the right place the ultimate Union victory might have been sealed earlier.
Although not attributable to Confederate Maj. Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest in any form or fashion, the military adage of getting to the battlespace first with an overwhelming force (often paraphrased as “firstest with the mostest”) is truly a reflection of timing and decisiveness.
In my mind’s eye, I see Confederate Maj. Gen. Ambrose Powell Hill, clad in his red battle shirt, leading his “foot cavalry” division into the exposed flank of Union Gen. Ambrose Burnside’s Corps at the very moment when Burnside was aligning his troops to roll up the balance of the Confederate Army at the Battle of Antietam.
I can’t be sure it happened exactly that way; however, a decisive blow at the perfect time saved Lee’s army that day. Luck or leadership, or maybe a little of both, involving timing and decisiveness usually puts the odds in favor of the ones prepared to assume the advantage. If you could, ask Napoleon about the Prussians at Waterloo.
Finally, for this column, consider patience as it relates to leadership. Most failed historians (like me) will immediately point at the Revolutionary War Battle of Bunker Hill and Col. William Prescott’s or Gen. Israel Putnam’s (most likely no one really said it) famous quote: “Don’t shoot until you see the whites of their eyes” as an example of patience by leaders in battle. And who could argue; patience is defined as “calmness under duress” and those farmers and shopkeepers aligned along the crest of Bunker Hill (it really was Breed’s Hill) displayed calmness while waiting for an experienced British Army to come into range.
Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf was patient as he quietly deployed an unstoppable force on the right flank of the Iraqi Army during the first Gulf War. The political pressure to win a quick victory was enormous; but Schwarzkoph knew that patiently deploying an overwhelming force would limit casualties and save American service members’ lives.
Whether on the battlefield, or in the board room, or even in the home; great leaders are patient and consider timing as an integral part of the decision making process. And when the decision is made and the time is right, great leaders act decisively to assure success.
Art Callaham is a community activist and president of the Washington County Free Library Board of Trustees.