When One Word Is Enough

 When One Word Is Enough

Panorama from Little Round Top of Civil War battlefield with statue of General Warren, Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.

Leadership and communication come down to 3 key elements of company culture.

July 2, 1863, Lt. Col. Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain shouldered
the burden of an impossible task: Hold the line at the Union far-left flank on Little Round Top during the Battle of Gettysburg. With one beleaguered regiment in his command, low on ammunition and men, Chamberlain’s orders were to rush to the front and hold out against the entire Alabama Brigade of Maj. Gen. John Bell Hood’s division.

Chamberlain’s men of the 20th Regiment Maine Volunteer Infantry were thrown into this battle at the last possible minute (just 10 minutes before the Confederate attack). His already-depleted regiment was stretched to the point where all the men could do was form a single-file line with a hard-right angle on the end to try to thwart Confederate flanking maneuvers. His men were tired, hungry, and poorly equipped. After rebuffing waves of assaults, they knew it was not going to end in victory. They had no reinforcements, and they had run out of ammunition. Chamberlain had three options: run away, stay in place, or go forward.

He looked to his men, meeting their eyes as he peered down the remaining line. Finally, he gave a one-word command. One word. It wasn’t “Charge!” or “Forward!” or even “Death!” He simply said, “Bayonets.”

That one word led to one of the most successful charges and highly lauded military maneuvers in US combat history. As the Confederates advanced for a final push, the men of the 20th Maine stormed down the hill, screaming as they charged their adversary, catching the rebels by surprise. The men making up the right angle moved quickly across like a swinging door, collapsing in on the Confederate troops climbing the hill toward them. The men of the Alabama Brigade were stunned and, thinking Union reinforcements had arrived, laid their weapons on the ground in surrender. Chamberlain would describe it in his journal:

Not a moment was about to be lost! Five minutes more of such a defensive and the last roll call would sound for us! Desperate as the chances were, there was nothing for it but to take the offensive. I stepped to the colors.
The men turned towards me. One word was enough—
It caught like fire and swept along the ranks.
The men took it up with a shout, one could not say whether from the pit or the song of the morning sat, it was vain to order ‘Forward!’ No mortal could have heard it in the mighty hosanna that was winging the sky. The whole line quivered from the start; the edge of the left-wing rippled, swung, tossed among the rocks, straightened, changed curve from scimitar to sickle-shape;
and the bristling archers swooped down upon the serried host…”

Chamberlain said it perfectly:
“the word was enough.”

That kind of leadership and communication can be simplified to three key elements of company culture: relationship, character, and purpose.

The men of the 20th Maine understood their purpose: not just their individual roles as soldiers, not just their place in their regiment, not just their place in the army. They understood the major purpose, the cause for the war—the reasons for two sides of the same country to wage battle against one another—and the importance of that war. They understood that the war would, quite literally, come down to their army, their regiment, and their role on that very hill. If that hill were flanked and lost to the Confederates, the battle at Gettysburg would have gone differently. The Confederate army would have had firing positions to take the entire Union army from behind. Then they would have marched unopposed into Washington, DC, where Abraham Lincoln would have sued for peace. That was their purpose: to hold the line and avoid that outcome.

Purpose is critical to the success of any team or organization: Why are we here? Why is what we do important? Why is what I do important to that greater cause?

Yet, it’s hard to imagine purpose alone would explain such quick and precise communication. A strong relationship with his men would also have been a crucial factor. These men knew their commander. They knew his story, his views, and his tendencies. They had spent years together. They endured suffering, loss, success, victories, and failures. They saw his reactions to those situations. They watched him lead and saw his approach and tactics. They knew his loves and his background as a professor of rhetoric and oratory at Bowdoin College. They knew of his family and what memories brought him joy in the toughest of times. They spent countless hours and days together. They knew the man, and they knew the look in his eye.

That strong relationship gave them insight into a much more powerful and telling attribute. They knew the man’s character—what he stood for, what made him angry, what made him cry, what made him laugh. They knew how deeply he felt about this war and his purpose. They knew what he had sacrificed and what they had been through together. They’d seen him injured yet continue the fight. They’d seen him when he ordered advance or retreat and how that impacted him. They knew that this man, in this moment, would not run away and would not stay in place. There was only one other option, and when the word “bayonets” came from their leader, they knew what it meant. Forward!

How a leader or an organization applies this comes down to three questions.

How strong are the relationships in your organization?

Is there a sense of trust, transparency, and accountability? Do you spend time together? Would your team members say they really know you—or each other, for that matter? What do you care about, what makes you angry, what inspires you, and what saddens you? When you fail or falter, have you been open about it? Can you say your team knows your heart, and do they know one another’s? Is it safe to share? Honest and real relationships breed organizational growth and help keep the organization healthy.

Does your character drive your growth?

Clients trust organizations to make a difference; they know those organizations care about having a positive impact and that they are excellent at what they do. Character starts with leadership. It’s important for leaders to live out personal values and communicate openly throughout the organization. Those day-to-day, personal values can manifest in many ways, but one way is through the lens of H3: humility, honesty, and humor.

Humility is key to strong relationships and the ability and willingness to listen and learn. Lack of humility leads to close-mindedness, arrogance, and a negative view of everything in the organization. If you see yourself above everything, then everything in the company is beneath you and you have nothing to look up to or forward to. It also means you take on the burden of making anything good happen for the company—in your mind, at least. To stay humble:

  • Remember (and remind yourself) that in given areas, others have more talent than you. Acknowledge it and stop trying to own everything.
  • Accept that you are not good at everything, and that’s okay. It’s better for yourself and your team to admit it. It’s freeing to acknowledge shortcomings and put the right people in place to create a balanced, successful team.
  • Take time to regularly name—out loud—those whom you wouldn’t be successful without. Everyone has those people who help make them successful. Gratitude has a huge impact and changes your view. Name those people and say it out loud in gratitude.

Honesty and openness will lead to better communication, clearer expectations, and more confidence in your team. There are several key attributes to an honest approach:

  • Foster trust, transparency, and accountability. Your team members need to know you trust them. They need open and transparent communication without the sense of need-to-know secrets. They also need accountability: We trust you, we’ll include you, and we hold each other accountable for our expectations.
  • Confidence and clarity are key. Uncertainty, “wishy-washiness,” or worse, silence on big issues, will erode any faith in the direction you’re heading. Be confident.
    Be clear.
  • No games! Office politics have no place in an organization—no intrigue or games with clients and none within the team. Don’t share what you wouldn’t tell a person to their face and always build a culture that allows others to call you out if that’s happening. Make it clear that there is no turf, no power moves, no territory, no shielded executives, and no barriers to talking with anyone in the company about anything.

Humor is one of the most powerful attributes of great company character. Laugh, relax, enjoy what you do, and have fun. Work isn’t separate from life; it’s part of it, and it should be enjoyable.

  • Joy is a key component to a strong culture. Why can’t work have a little joy? Take joy in what you accomplish and joy in celebrating the gifts and talents of the team. Joy can be found in many ways, big and small.
  • Laugh—a lot. A team that is comfortable laughing together
    is a healthy team.
  • Don’t take yourself too seriously. Your tone sets the bar for the team and the organization. Be available. Be vulnerable. Be kind and be engaged.

Do you know why you do what you do?

Do your team members understand their role and purpose? Is it clear, not only what their job is, but the impact they have on the bigger and more important purpose of the organization?

There is a proverb that illustrates the impact of this question: for want of a nail.

Benjamin Franklin put it this way in 1758:

For want of a nail, the shoe was lost.

For want of a shoe, the horse was lost.

For want of a horse, the rider was lost.

For want of a rider, the battle was lost.

For want of a battle, the kingdom was lost,

And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.

The point here is every single person in an organization has a critical role to play. Every detail of what they do, from an email to a conversation to a major deliverable, is vital to success, which will not happen without each one of them and the actions they take daily. Each must understand how they impact the greater purpose of the organization.

One final note about the 20th Maine’s actions on that day in 1863: Chamberlain’s one-word order wasn’t the key to how the events unfolded. It truly came down to this phrase noted in his journal: “It caught like fire and swept along the ranks.” The team passed the word, and “the whole line quivered from the start …” That one word caught like wildfire because of what already existed: close relationships, strong character, and a clear and vital purpose. In a culture like that, “the word is enough … Bayonets!” 

Jonathan Conrad

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