Oliver Otis Howard would be a teenager’s worst nightmare, always nagging about acting responsibly. His men, mostly German immigrants, grew tone-deaf to his persistent preaching against the evil twins of playing cards and drinking alcohol. Howard's irritating display of religious sentiments and moral superiority added to the resentment his men held against him, which translated into near disasters in battle.
As a soldier who sprang from a military textbook, no one ever doubted his sense of responsibility to command, or questioned his courage in combat. In fact, he lost his right arm in an earlier fight for which he would later be awarded the Medal of Honor.
Referred to by historians as "one-armed Howard," he was obsessed with a need to have an impeccable reputation as a commander. After being in charge of a retreating Union army on the first day, he was relieved of command a few hours later. This was not due to any incompetence since his forces were simply outnumbered, and he was unexpectedly thrown into a command posture without a briefing from the officer he replaced. During the heat of battle and in a fatalistic and over-dramatic note to his superior, General Meade, he wrote that the reality of being replaced would be, in effect, the earthquake that would shake his career: it “…has mortified me and will disgrace me. Please inform me frankly if you disapprove of my conduct to-day, that I may know what to do.” Moreover, he worked diligently at polishing his image because he could not rely on his own men. He never realized that had he treated them with an attitude of fairness and tolerance, they may have reciprocated and given him the reputation he dearly sought.
Given their hostility towards him and his contempt for their "sinful" ways, he was not perceived as an effective or empathetic leader. One junior officer wrote that “…very little confidence is felt in General Howard. Troops without confidence in their leaders are worth nothing.” Perceptions aside, his performance was quite remarkable. Given the overwhelming stress under which he had to operate, he carefully and without panic plotted a fall-back maneuver to a defensive position that proved essential to final victory. Congress later expressed its gratitude for his performance.
After the war Howard’s strident advocacy for the freedom of slaves motivated him to co-found a school exclusively for freed slaves, Howard University. In what amounted to one of the Civil War’s great ironies, this gesture was empathy of the best kind.
If you are going to wear your beliefs on your sleeve, if you are going to tell people how they ought to behave, prepare to be scorned. If you are perceived to have qualities that are admirable in a leader, such as having a little warmth and understanding, you can influence others to help you achieve your goals. Empathy knows and understands what others feel and think. Good leadership decisions do not depend on empathy, but good leaders take into account the expressed thoughts and feelings of others when they are useful to achieve a desired result.
People want to help you succeed.
Had Howard’s men respected him, they would have been driven to achieve his objectives. Allowing someone to help you gives that person a sense of personal worth while giving you the results you desire. If you want to observe how successful you can be at leading, ask this powerfully influential question: “Can you help me?” The question achieves two results: first, people are eager to prove a positive trait about themselves; and second, it is an invitation to express their own sense of personal value. This is why a perfect stranger, when you ask for help, will nearly always give you directions when you are lost. One of America’s most influential public speakers, Zig Ziegler, is fond of saying, “Help enough people get what they want, and they will help you get what you want.”
Intimidation is counterproductive.
When your judgment is challenged, or you do not have the cooperation you seek to achieve your purpose, it could be that others do not understand what you expect, do not see your purpose as achievable, or do not see it as relevant to their responsibilities. To intimidate people to fulfill your wishes is leadership with a negative influence, the kind that handicapped Howard. Lousy leadership is effective because it translates into lousy results.
Work toward the same objective.
If you do not work to influence the confidence of those you lead, expect little or no progress. Followers with no confidence in their leader are ineffective. They are likely to act contrary to a leader’s intent. The most progress is made when everyone is working in harmony towards the same objective.
Copyright © 2011 Paul Lloyd Hemphill