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Leadership Lessons from the Civil War: Winning Strategies for Today's Managers

Leadership Lessons from the Civil War: Winning Strategies for Today's Managers

5.0 1
by Tom Wheeler

Strategic lessons for today's business leaders culled from the great leaders and battlefield decisions of the Civil War.

"War," Tom Stoppard writes in his brilliant play Travesties, "is capitalism with the gloves off."

Business has often been likened to war. Given their similarities, what better way to learn about strategic


Strategic lessons for today's business leaders culled from the great leaders and battlefield decisions of the Civil War.

"War," Tom Stoppard writes in his brilliant play Travesties, "is capitalism with the gloves off."

Business has often been likened to war. Given their similarities, what better way to learn about strategic business leadership than from the battlefield triumphs--and catastrophes--of America's greatest conflict, the Civil War? In Leadership Lessons from the Civil War, former CEO and telecommunications leader Tom Wheeler distills basic leadership strategies used in the Civil War into nine specific lessons--illustrated with in-depth stories of battlefield decisions--that can help guide business leaders today.

Through Union General George McClellan's devastating encounters with Confederate General Robert E. Lee, for example, we see the consequences of one leader's fear of failure: ultimate defeat. Had McClellan been courageous enough to employ his advantage in troop size and position, he could have handily defeated Lee several times in the war. Lee, on the other hand, was willing to risk everything to achieve victory, which helped make victory possible.

Among the time-tested lessons Wheeler convincingly illustrates:

Never fight today's battles with yesterday's tactics
The greatest campaigns are often decided by the smallest skirmishes
If you can't win--change the rules

In the course of the book, Wheeler recounts his own experiences in the telecommunications industry, using the war stories of such media moguls as Craig McCaw, Ted Turner, and Gerald Levin as examples of modern-dayStonewall Jacksons and Jeb Stuarts who apply these strategic lessons to today's corporate battles.

Based on the life-or-death triumphs and failures of America's greatest military campaigns, Leadership Lessons from the Civil War is an inspiring--and extraordinarily readable--guide to business leadership and decision making.

Product Details

Broadway Books
Publication date:
Edition description:
1 ED
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5.93(w) x 8.62(h) x 1.03(d)

Read an Excerpt

Dare to Fail

Don't confuse victory with avoiding a loss

The willingness to fail breeds success.

Decisive victories require risking a loss. A leader who fails to risk will fail to win. Of course one must consider the risks involved and avoid risk for risk's sake. But successful leaders are the leaders willing to embrace risk.

Union General George B. McClellan's fear of loss was so great that it prevented him from winning even though he commanded the most powerful force ever assembled. His Confederate adversary, Robert E. Lee, although short of troops and supplies, won his major engagements with McClellan precisely because of his willingness to risk failure.

Lee focused on the victory he could achieve, while McClellan focused on the loss he must avoid. The results demonstrated graphically that the fear of failure is too often self-fulfilling.

In a time of strategic imperative, if you don't take risks . . . you lose.

The Campaigns of 1862

Following the disastrous Union defeat at First Manassas (Bull Run) in July 1861--the first real battle of the Civil War--President Lincoln turned for leadership in the Eastern Theater to thirty-four-year-old George Brinton McClellan. Fresh from victories against Robert E. Lee in western Virginia, General McClellan was one of the few victorious officers from whom Lincoln could choose. Full of pomp, the diminutive McClellan was soon dubbed "Young Napoleon" by a press in search of heroes.

When it came to rebuilding the shattered Union army and restoring its self-respect, George McClellan was the man for the job. During the fall and winter that followed the Manassasdebacle (see Lesson Four) the Union army was reorganized, and resupplied, its men drilled until they began to actually behave like competent soldiers.

McClellan seemed content to stay in camp around Washington, enjoying what he had built. "On to Richmond," however, was the cry among the media and politicians. By the spring of 1862, under intense prodding by Lincoln to go on the offensive, McClellan had devised a plan to take the Confederate capital of Richmond by striking the soft underbelly of Rebel defenses.

Most Confederate troops were concentrated between Washington and Richmond in anticipation of an overland attack. Cleverly, McClellan planned to use the Chesapeake Bay to circle around by boat, drive up the Virginia peninsula between the York and James rivers, and take the Confederate capital from behind.

Fear of Failure Stops an Army


Having rebuilt a shattered Union army and conceptualized an effective plan, McClellan proceeded to squander his chance for victory.

Richmond was only a few days' march up the peninsula from where 67,000 Union troops landed on April 4, 1862. Between McClellan and the capital were only 13,000 Confederate troops commanded by Brigadier General John Magruder.

Rarely has an individual's personal traits and the military necessities coincided so well as they did with Magruder. Dubbed "Prince John," the West Point and Mexican War veteran loved high society, lived beyond his means, and reveled in pomp and circumstance. Magruder's life was an exercise in playacting--exactly the skills required by his outnumbered army. In George McClellan, the actor found the perfect audience.

Arming himself only with theatrics, Magruder took a position athwart the path of the powerful foe. Destruction of his small force seemed assured.

At the historic site of Yorktown, where George Washington received the surrender of British General Cornwallis to ensure the Revolution's success, "Prince John" Magruder made his stand. Overwhelmingly outnumbered, Magruder recast the landscape to maximize his defensive posture. One flank was anchored on a river that was dammed at key points to produce impassable artificial ponds. On his other flank, Magruder expanded the British and American trenches of 1781. With only fifteen pieces of artillery available to defend the entire thirteen-mile line, Magruder built a stage set of black-painted logs cut to look like guns.

Having recast the earth and redesigned the set to his maximum advantage, Magruder next recast his men as actors in a drama designed to convince George McClellan he was facing a formidable foe. All day long Confederate units would march among the fortifications, then circle around out of sight and march the same path again. With much whistle blowing and commotion empty trains would roll into place behind the lines, officers would shout commands at the "new troops," and buglers would blow commands. Then the engines would back up a distance, and come forward again for another noisy--and completely phony--arrival on stage.

It worked. McClellan was spooked.

Despite the reports of Rebel deserters that Magruder's army was only a skeleton force; despite reports from some brigade commanders that the line in front of them was thin; despite the fact that one probe of the Confederate line broke through (only to be ordered back); the "Young Napoleon" fell for Magruder's deception. Demonstrating his utter inability to accept risk, McClellan reasoned that a professional soldier like Magruder would never even think of holding a thirteen-mile line with only a handful of troops. Since McClellan was facing a "superior" force, he chose what seemed the most risk-free option, a siege. McClellan wrote his wife to send his books on the Crimean War siege at Sebastopol.

While McClellan hesitated, the trains on the Confederate side of the line started delivering real, not phantom, troops. By the end of April, the Confederates had almost 57,000 men on the field, augmented by thirty-six artillery batteries--real ones now, not painted logs. Magruder's goal was accomplished; McClellan had been stopped long enough for troops north of Richmond to be shifted to confront the advance.

The "Young Napoleon" wasted what the real Napoleon described as a general's greatest asset--time. It took McClellan a month to get past Yorktown, then he accomplished it only because the still outnumbered Confederate defense force, having accomplished its goal of buying time, slipped away one night and joined the now much more formidable Rebel army farther up the peninsula.

McClellan had defined his goal as not putting his army at risk rather than as defeating his opponent.

However, that did not stop McClellan from declaring victory.

"Yorktown is in our possession," his dispatch crowed the morning after the Rebels slipped away.

"Our success is brilliant," claimed a subsequent message.

McClellan's opponent, once divided and out of position, had been given time to reposition and consolidate to confront the Union force. Now numbering 80,000, the Southern troops dug into defensive positions blocking the path to the Confederate capital. Because of his inability to risk an attack at Yorktown, McClellan now faced a larger and much better prepared opponent.

What People are Saying About This

Tom Daschle
From Tom Daschle, U.S. Senator and Senate Democratic Leader

Take Command" is my favorite kind of book: practical, insightful--and a good read. Tom Wheeler demonstrates convincingly that the principles of leadership transcend the boundaries of time and discipline. This is a book as much about the future as it is about the past.

James A. Baker
From James A. Baker, III, Former Secretary of State, Secretary of Treasury, and White House Chief of Staff

As we enter the next millennium, it is imperative that we develop new management and business strategies to keep pace with our rapidly changing world. Tom Wheeler's interesting and insightful analysis of the leadership lessons of the Civil War reveals just how valuable our history can be—and how crucial it is that we learn from our past as we move into the Twenty-first Century.

Edward J. Whitacre, Jr
From Edward J. Whitacre, Jr., Chairman and Chief Executive Officer, SBC Communications, Inc.

Tom Wheeler has taken the War Between the States and turned it into a fascinating and very readable study in effective business leadership. Having come through a few corporate battles himself, he obviously understands decision-making under fire. In this book, he applies military strategy to the marketplace, and draws from Lee, Jackson, Grant and the rest some powerful lessons about what works—and what doesn't—in the business world. It's solid stuff.

Ervin S. Duggan
From Ervin S. Duggan, President and CEO, PBS

Tom Wheeler's book is lively, intelligent, well-informed and inspiring. No wonder: so is he. Tom's entire career—as an entrepreneur, as a highly effective association CEO, as a philanthropist and author—is itself a lesson in leadership. His book has the narrative power of a novel and the practical power of a how-to manual.

Craig McCaw
From Craig McCaw, Chairman and CEO, Eagle River, Inc.

This entertaining look at the parallels between business and military strategy is just what one would expect from a successful leader like Tom Wheeler. His many career achievements provide yet more support for the lessons that are the focus of this book.

Ivan Seidenberg
From Ivan Seidenberg, Chairman and CEO, Bell Atlantic

A totally engrossing business 'must read.' Tom Wheeler's nine lessons comparing Civil War strategy and leadership to modern equivalents at Coca Cola, HBO, Microsoft, MCI and other Fortune 50 giants is fresh and provocative. Fascinating to see Goizueta, Levin and Turner as the Lees, Grants and Stonewall Jacksons of our day. This book demonstrates how to win in today's high states marketplace.

Ken Burns
From Ken Burns, Author/producer of The Civil War

We find, in the echoes of our most defining moment, lessons of almost eternal durability--about freedom, courage, purpose and of course, leadership. Tom Wheeler knows this in his bones and shares with us much of the positive inheritance of that awful war. There is much to learn here, a primer for being as well as business.

Louis W. Stern
From Louis W. Stern, John D. Gray Distinguished Professor of Marketing, Northwestern University, J.L. Kellogg Graduate School of Management

It is for good reason that business is often analogized to war. This unique, thoughtful and fun to read book proves that leadership is timeless and the lessons from over a century ago are keys to success in the competitive markets of today.

Ken Blanchard
From Ken Blanchard, co-author of The One Minute

Take Command is a powerful response to the great challenges that take place in the battlefields of today's corporate culture. Tom Wheeler explores the timeless leadership principles of American Civil War heroes, and applies their lessons to common people facing uncommon challenges. The lessons are not only relevant to the massive social and technological change of today's new workplace, they can be applied to any leadership situation, in any era.

James Barksdale
From (James Barksdale, The Barksdale Group, Former CEO, Netscape

Growing a business and keeping the competition in the rearview mirror requires effective leadership from every executive, manager, and project leader in a company. Tom Wheeler's Leadership Lessons from the Civil war: Winning Strategies for Today's managers reveals the timeless attributes of successful leadership, as valid on Civil War front lines as on today's volatile corporate battlefields.

Newt Gingrich
Tom Wheeler has written an extraordinary book that combines the principles of leadership, war, and business leadership into one highly readable lesson. If you buy only one book on leadership, this is the book. If you want to learn how to run a successful team in business, sports, politics, or government...this book will give you the tools and insights that will make you more effective.

Meet the Author

Tom Wheeler is president of the Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association and former president of the National Cable Television Association. He has founded and run telecommunications companies, and has had up-close and personal relationships with virtually all the influential figures in telecommunications for the last twenty years. He lives with his wife in the Washington, D.C., area.

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Leadership Lessons from the Civil War 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Our work at the Center for Narrative Studies ( www,storywise.com)involves us in training young people from Northern Ireland in the art of leadership (www.storywise.com/youngleaders) Given the tense political situation in Belfast at the moment, we have been searching for materials that present models of leadership in times of crisis, where leaders have to contend with deep division, fragmentation and a long history of injustice. This book has come at just the right time for us and our program. We have invited its author, Tom Wheeler, to run a seminar for our young Irish leaders over the summer and demonstrate how times of crisis are also times that bring out the greatest leaders. This is an important book. We'd love to have a workbook to go with it.