Give Me A Minute – How To Fail As A Leader – The Army of Tennessee

I enjoy reading about the Civil War. If you don’t, move on I guess. I wrote an article a few weeks ago about what I think should happen to the monuments that some people want to pull down. Check it out.

I just finished a book by Richard M. McMurry entitled Two Great Rebel Armies. The Army of Tennessee and the Army of Northern Virginia. The Army of Tennessee didn’t have much luck during the war. In fact, they pretty much lost every time there was a battle. How could that be? What is that fine line between success and failure? McMurry gets it right. He talks about the importance of leadership and says, “it wasn’t the army that lost the western theater of the Civil War, it was the generals.” What flaws did the five Confederate generals who commanded the Army of Tennessee have and can we learn anything from 155 years ago?

Albert Sydney Johnston was first. “His administration of the army was poor; the strategic errors that he made were serious. His personality had many “weaknesses.” His confidence “waned” … and his “confused state of mind” and “bewilderment” hampered his control of the army.”

His successor was a subordinate, “(t)he wily and scheming …, General Pierre Gustav Toutant Beauregard.” I do love that name. Truly one of the classic Civil War names. He didn’t get along with his boss, Jefferson Davis. “The bitterness existing between himself and the government as well as the general’s propensity to make what his biographer called “plans”…not based on realities, and sometimes…almost “fantastic” would have constituted most formidable obstacles to his success…”

The third was General Braxton Bragg. “Most historians have not held a high opinion of Bragg and certainly the general had his problems. T. Harry Williams called him “probably the ugliest and most disliked Southern general.” According to (one historian), “Bragg never learned how to communicate with anyone.” McMurry says “Bragg is dull, sour, pedantic,” and “did not seem to understand people.” “He sought scapegoats for every mistake, and there were many mistakes for which a scapegoat had to be found.” Ugly may not be a key leadership quality but the scapegoat thing is not good.

General Joseph E. Johnston “…was no genius at strategy. He exhibited a general air of defeatism.” “He was a troubled man who seemed bitter and despondent and was not communicative.” He “gave the impression that nothing pleased him and that whatever future arrangement was made probably wouldn’t please him either.” In other words, don’t communicate and never be satisfied by the work your people do.

Finally, we have John Bell Hood. His left arm was useless from a wound he suffered in battle and he lost his right leg, amputated below the hip. He had also been shot through the hand with an arrow in a battle with Comanche Indians. McMurry attributes some of his problems to a sense of feeling inadequate as a result of his wounds. I love the line that says “Hood led the Army of Tennessee off on what was probably the most poorly planned and executed major campaign of the war.”  A historian says “Hood was even worse than Joseph E. Johnston. And, “(h)e was also a chronic liar.” With one leg, I’m not sure if he rode a horse. Seems to me when he kicked it the horse would just walk around in circles… I know, not politically correct…

So, there we have the makings of failure in leadership. Poor administrator, lacking self-confidence, can’t get along with your boss, ugly (OK, maybe not ugly), needs scapegoats to take the blame, poor communicator and planner, and chronic liar. Many leaders have the same problems today.

Thanks to Richard McMurry for a good book. In the coming years, I plan to visit the sites of many of the Civil War battles mentioned. Shiloh, Franklin, Chickamauga, and others. I recommend the book to anyone who wants a quick read about the two Confederate armies and what it takes to be a successful leader.

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