The pile of boulders called Little Round Top is one of the most visited spots on the Gettysburg battlefield. It was there on July 2, 1863 that a thirty-four year old professor of rhetoric and his volunteer soldiers defended the vulnerable left flank of the Federal Army against repeated rebel assaults. When the menace was greatest and the enemy threatened to crush his line, Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain led his men in a sudden, surprise charge. The unexpected move, the momentum of the downhill rush and their bayonets broke the Confederate assault.
When I visit this section of the field during The Gettysburg Leadership Experience, group discussion focuses on creativity. In a tight spot, Chamberlain—a citizen soldier who’d been in uniform for barely a year—came up with a solution that worked. We brainstorm how we might foster that kind of remarkable creativity on our own teams.
Recently one executive latched onto another aspect of the story: in addition to being creative, Chamberlain had been coachable. More than that, he sought coaching. (See my Coaching blog post here.)
Chamberlain’s commander, up until a month before the battle, was a twenty-seven year old professional soldier named Adelbert Ames. Ames, an 1861 graduate of West Point, had already been promoted for his performance in battle by the time he met Chamberlain. The former professor, recognizing his own lack of training and experience, latched on to the much younger man to learn as much as he could about battle tactics and leadership. When Ames was promoted in May 1863, Chamberlain took command of the regiment; less than two months later came his test on the rocky slope of that hill.
During a recent discussion, a client mentioned that, in business, saying someone has or needs a coach is pejorative. That person is not performing and needs to be “fixed.”
That put me in mind of this brilliant Ted Talk by the surgeon and author Atul Gawande, who points out that Itzak Perlman, one of the greatest living violinists in the world, has a coach. That’s how he got to be among the very best.
We’re used to coaches in sports. Serena Williams has a coach, so does Lebron James. In American football and baseball, the coaching staffs are highly specialized. An NFL tight end coach works with professional athletes, men who are, arguably, at the pinnacle of their profession, on everything from basic footwork to the complexities of strategy. John Wooden, who coached the UCLA men’s basketball team to ten NCAA championships in twelve years (including a record seven in a row), started his first practices of the season talking his players through how to get dressed. Talk about not being afraid to hit the basics.
Gawande uses his own experience as a surgeon as an example. After a number of years of practice, he noticed that his learning curve had leveled off, and that his incidence of complications from surgery stopped going down. He invited a retired colleague to observe him, someone who could break down Gawande’s performance into small elements and make suggestions as to how to improve. These turned out to be simple things: make better use of the lights. If your arms are at an odd angle, move your feet and reposition your body. In meetings with your team you talk ninety percent of the time; listen more.
Being observed and hearing the coaching was not always comfortable, Gawande admits. And sometimes, when he made an adjustment, his performance got worse before it got better. But it did get better.
I have, in addition to an editor, a writing coach. I don’t always want to hear what she has to say, but in the vast majority of instances, listening to her has helped me.
Many of the leadership philosophies I review encourage people to “take charge of your own career and development.” One can follow that advice without going it alone. Being professional, Gawande points out, is not just about how good you are, but how good you can be.
Join me for The Gettysburg Leadership Experience and lively discussions about what we can learn about leadership that applies today. We offer open enrollment programs, or you can bring a group on dates that fit your schedule.