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Art Callaham: Local leaders could learn from Knox

February 03, 2013

Henry Knox — now there’s a name you don’t hear very often.  Sure, lots of folks recognize the name Knox when it’s related to Fort Knox in Kentucky. Yes, Fort Knox is named after the first secretary of war (both under the U.S. Constitution as well as the Articles of Confederation) for the fledgling United States of America.

Interestingly, Fort Knox is not only the home of the repository of our U.S. gold reserves, but also the home of the U.S. Army’s armor school. Armor, for the uninitiated, is the current “cavalry.” (For you veterans, I know the difference between cavalry and armor; heck, I even know the difference between “air cav” and “ground cav.”)

The simplest definition of cavalry, whether in the air or on the ground is: (an) “instrument which multiplied the fighting value of even the smallest forces, allowing them to outflank and avoid, to surprise and overpower, to retreat and escape according to the requirements of the moment.” So, enough said about cavalry or armor. The main point here is that Henry Knox was an artillery commander; arguably the first in America’s Revolutionary Army. They should have named Fort Sill, Okla., after Knox, but that’s another story.

Clayton Wilcox, superintendent of Washington County Public Schools, sent me a note recently and suggested that I read the book, “Henry Knox: Visionary General of the American Revolution” by Mark Puls. Wilcox also sent along a wonderful critique of the book by Michael Friesen, titled “Leadership Lessons from an American Revolution General.”

I’ve read the book and enjoyed the critique. But, before I comment, let me say that I’m impressed with Wilcox’s leadership skills and believe he exemplifies many of the traits identified with Knox. In a later column, I plan to give Wilcox an opportunity to espouse his own leadership axioms. I think you will be impressed.

Back to Knox. Both Friesen and Puls believe that “curiosity” is a basic leadership skill. Knox began his formal education at an esteemed Boston grammar school but later had to drop out because of the family’s financial situation. 

However, “young Knox was inquisitive and worked to steadily learn from those around him. An effective leader uses curiosity as a fuel to constantly discover useful things about the organizational actions versus mission. This means cultivating professional relationships at all levels to better understand the prevailing culture (and sub-cultures).”

A second leadership trait of Knox was to “be hands-on when needed.”  According to Freisen, “a great leader (such as Knox) will have a finely tuned ability to delegate but must resist the temptation to abdicate, especially when the project goals are critical to the organizational success.” This is as much an “art” as a “science.”

Finally, Friesen and Puls believe that Knox was able to “shift priorities based on principles.”

“A leader must constantly measure priorities against timeless principles and organizational aims. Just as important, the leader must have the humility to shift priorities to keep the organization moving forward. Also, a holistic leader will not neglect a personal mission and will be ready to make even more dramatic shifts as required.”

In simple terms, Knox — a visionary leader and commander — was always learning and didn’t act on the first answer given. He looked (was curious) for other options before making decisions. He led from the front and got his hands dirty when needed. And, finally, he realized that the situation (timing) might change priorities and was willing to put away his personal and even the majority’s objections when drastic action was needed.

Perhaps Knox’s ghost is hovering in City Hall today. Perhaps bringing in folks (being curious) offering a different approach to downtown or citywide revitalization is a good idea. And maybe our new mayor is getting his hands dirty and leading from the front to develop a plan for future improvements in our city. And maybe, just maybe, some of our city council members will put aside their campaign rhetoric and judge all future plans on merit, considering the situation and not just the public’s yammerings.

As Knox found out, leading is a tenuous situation in itself. One botched plan, one lost opportunity or one effort that is judged as too slow can put even the best leader out of office. Four years is a long time, however.

Art Callaham is a community activist and president of the Washington County Free Library Board of Trustees.





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