He was ambassador to Spain before returning to the United States to command volunteers from the German immigrant population. But he was a target in a culture of rampant ethnic prejudices. A German citizen by birth and an American soldier by choice, Schurz and his fellow immigrants were scorned as “Flying Dutchmen,” an epithet used to suggest innate cowardice of German-born soldiers. Schurz’s men did what other troops would have done when hopelessly outnumbered: retreat in a run for their lives. Ridiculed and under the poor leadership of General O.O. Howard in a previous battle, Schurz and his men at Gettysburg, despite an impressive resistance against the opposition, were accused of incompetence and used as scapegoats for much of the Union army’s failure on the first day.
Schurz and his men were furious. Behavior was reactionary: they became more defiantly loyal to the language and customs of their old country. With prejudice rearing its ugly head, morale sunk to such a low that Schurz’s men had little or no confidence in their own effectiveness as a combat unit.
The perception of his men’s poor performance, contrary to what the Rebels concluded, was that Schurz’s entire command ran away again in the heat of battle. With history standing by to repeat itself, there was too little time to defend too much ground. Schurz was assigned temporarily by O.O. Howard to lead a much larger body of troops for which he had no experience. He compounded his problem by failing to assume the responsibilities for a larger command and acted as if he were still commanding his old but smaller division. Although thrust upon him in the most stressful circumstance, he was dangerously acting out the Peter Principle: failure was virtually guaranteed by being promoted to a level of competence he did not possess.
In his final report of the battle Schurz wasted no words quantifying the bravery of his men: “Our loss was extremely severe. The Second Brigade…lost all its regimental commanders; several regiments nearly half their number in killed and wounded. Being flanked right and left the situation…was most trying.” (Inexplicably, Schurz failed to mention that one of his German-born officers, Captain Francis Irsch, made a gallant stand with six hundred other Union men, and for his efforts was awarded the Medal of Honor.) Accusatory fingers were shaking aggressively that day when unwarranted blame was being assigned to the “foreigners.”
Welcome diversity, but…
For great things to be accomplished as a group, community, or nation, embrace diversity as a means to an end, a creative force for building unity as a shared goal, something Schurz’s superiors never appreciated. Diversity recognizes what each person contributes, and unity channels one’s talents toward the good of all. As an end in itself, diversity enlarges our differences, promotes division and hostility, and slowly demolishes the identity of a group. Unity encourages bonding and defines a common identity. It focuses attention and energies on a common purpose and ultimately leads to achievements of all kinds.
Diversity can be a competitive advantage for organizations: people of varying backgrounds and opinions bring unique perspectives to solving problems. Attracting a diversity of talent that is blind to race, gender or beliefs makes a group stronger and its likelihood of success more probable.
Welcome diversity, but only after recognizing that unity is the ultimate force that influences greater productivity and, above all, greater harmony among ourselves. Only then can we invigorate and sustain the meaning of “United” in America’s official name.
Human labels are wrong.
Discrimination against race, beliefs, age or gender will damage your efforts to achieve success, be it personally or professionally. Had the unity of purpose not been hampered by discrimination against so-called foreigners, the Union army and Schurz may have been more successful. A label nearly killed Schurz. Consider only positive forms of discrimination. For example, the free enterprise system allows you to choose one service or product in favor of another. Consumers do it everyday. You can influence individuals to deal with you instead of someone else.
Communicate to build trust.
The doors of success open wide to those who make the effort to communicate. The Germans under Schurz proved the opposite by turning communication inside-out, isolating themselves from the world with an emotional self-imposed refusal to communicate. They succeeded in influencing their critics to distrust them. Positive communication, in the form of reaching out, had they tried it, would have proven to be the surest way to influence trust and achieve greater victories.
Consider yourself a victim and fail.
It is possible that a few of these so-called foreigners had already stigmatized themselves as victims of prejudice and decided to exaggerate their nurtured resentment and alienation from the mainstream when everything was finally in their favor. Claiming to be a victim as your identity (versus a problem to be solved), and using it as a self-imposed influence to do nothing, promotes behavior that is unproductive, irresponsible, self-defeating, and perhaps in the case of some of these soldiers, fatal. Whenever the opportunities to win present themselves, however limited, take full advantage or risk failure of your own making.
Copyright 2012 Paul Loyd Hemphill
The Definition Of Leadership