Instead of being their commander, his own men would have preferred him as their target. General Lee referred to him as “my bad old man.” Early’s discipline was harsh, and his thin-skinned personality would make good on a threat for the smallest infraction. He angered his men with a petition to his own commander to restrict the visits of family members, declaring them, in effect, excess baggage that interferes in the mechanics of war.
Though highly combustible and opinionated, his reputation in battle was exemplary, and he was promoted rapidly. Yet it could be argued that he would have achieved more if only he had the devotion of his men. The idea of maintaining morale never crossed his mind.
Early’s men, inspired to fight for an independent South, succeeded in spite of him. At Gettysburg they were able and determined to drive the Union army back towards town while inflicting heavy losses. By the end of the first day, his efforts were greatly responsible for Lee’s victory.
At an evening conference with his generals, Lee asked if Ewell’s corps should be withdrawn from a position they fought so hard to gain. In his typically abrasive manner, so he claimed years later, he cut in ahead of his commander Ewell and answered for him. With great irony, Early told Lee that such a withdrawal would hurt morale. His point was well made, that men should not give up a position they had won, but he was missing the point of Lee’s game plan for the second day. Lee needed his troops to repeat the day’s successful offensive on the following day, which meant being in motion, not still. Not to be insubordinate, Early went on with his duties and never looked back.
Thirty-one years after the battle, Early was self-delusional in his all-too-brief and sterile assessment of the final moments of the Civil War’s greatest battle. Pickett’s Charge, he concluded, “closed the fighting at the battle of Gettysburg. Meade retained his position on the heights, and our army held the position it had assumed for the attack, while both armies had sustained very heavy losses…” These were fighting words of a half-truth crafting a mythology, but given his demoralized Southern audience, fiction had plenty of readers. The early Early fought to change history, but the later Early labored to revise it.
Respect those you lead.
Influence people in a disrespectful manner and you will forfeit your right to lead. Followers want someone to follow, and if you act like Early, you will fail to maximize your achievements. Ultimately, the time will come when you will be forced to change your ways: either lead with a positive influence to get the help you need to succeed, or suffer an assortment of negative consequences.
Expect to be ignored.
When someone else is in control, prepare to have your advice ignored. You may have the most talented supervisor, or you may be the most talented employee, but there is no guarantee that what you suggest at a particular time is going to be taken seriously; Early found out soon enough. No one likes to be proven wrong, but if you are proven correct, a thankful handshake, a warm embrace, or a fast promotion is not always waiting for you. If your advice is ignored, do what Early did: go about your business and channel your energies into the next project or opportunity.
Copyright 2012 Paul Lloyd Hemphill
The Definition Of Leadership