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AArrogance is not a leadership trait. Humility and servanthood are leadership traits. If there were ever two men who exemplified the polar opposites of arrogance and humility, it would have to George B. McClellan and Abraham Lincoln.

Imagine the first day of filming a major motion picture where no one, not director nor actors, has seen the script. There would be chaos. It would take time to organize everything and get everyone on the same page. Filming would be delayed. Even when filming began, there would be lines mis-quoted, and forgotten. It would look rather amateurish. Thus was the opening year of the Civil War.

The confusion of that first year was further extenuated by two realities:

  1. Weaponry had changed radically since the last war; but
  2. Tactics had not.

Guns, both small arms and artillery, had changed a great deal since the Mexican War. Rifling (cutting of spiral groves in the barrel of a gun) caused the bullet to spin as it left the end of a barrel and a spinning projectile is much more accurate than the old smooth bore guns used before the Civil War.

Napoleonic tactics were the order of the day for the United States Army in the mid-nineteenth century. Roughly this meant lining up across an open space and shooting volley after volley into the other line. This was necessary with smooth bore guns, but it was devastating with rifled projectiles.

No one, not McClellan, Robert E. Lee nor Abraham Lincoln took these two realities into account when the war began. It wasn’t until the first battles that anyone realized that tactics had to change.

McClellan in the popular Napoleon pose

McClellan in the popular Napoleon pose

Into this mix comes George B. McClellan, fresh from his victories in West Virginia over his once and future opponent, Robert E. Lee. The North was embarrassed over the battle of First Bull Run and was desperate for a leader. Irvin McDowell had been the North’s hapless general during that debacle. In one of the mysteries of the war, McClellan had beat Lee in the mountains of western Virginia (what would become West Virginia). So, when Lincoln was looking for a commander for the Army of the Potomac, McClellan’s name came to the surface.

There was just one problem. McClellan was an organizer, not a leader. Sure, he had out maneuvered Lee, but even a blind squirrel finds a nut once and awhile. McClellan organized the Army of the Potomac frontwards and backwards. They were spit and polish and knew how to drill and parade. They could probably fight too. But McClellan kept them in camp.

You see, another characteristic of McClellan was his innate ability to make up excuses for why he didn’t fight. His troops were forever, almost ready or he needed more troops because he was outnumbered. Just give me more troops and we’ll be on our way to Richmond was often his refrain. In his defense, McClellan was often given bad intel.

McClellan was arrogant, which is not a leadership trait. His list of character traits show a man so arrogant and vain that it’s a wonder he had room in his life for anyone else—there is evidence that his wife fed his ego and is probably why their marriage didn’t fail.

Some specifics to illustrate McClellan’s arrogance and manipulative nature:

  • October 1861…pressure to mount offensive from Congress on Lincoln
    • Lincoln goes to see McClellan at night to urge him to fight
    • McClellan assures Lincoln he has a plan
    • To Senators, I want to fight but Scott is holding me back
      • McClellan wanted to be general in chief and chaffed at the idea that his brilliance was being held back by Old Fuss and Feathers (Winfield Scott, General-in-Chief at the outbreak of the Civil War; 75 years old, could not mount a horse)
  • November 1861
    • McClellan is made general in chief when Scott is forced to retire.
    • Lincoln made frequent visits to McClellan’s headquarters to study the general, to see if he had what it takes to be supreme commander.
    • McClellan described Lincoln as a rare bird unless Lincoln tried to exercise real control over McClellan, then his amusement turned to anger and scorn.
      • Example: Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles and David Porter, a navy lieutenant at the time, presented, with Lincoln, a plan to capture the Mississippi River, beginning with New Orleans… then Vicksburg, which Lincoln described as the key center of the Confederacy: “The war can never be brought to a close until that key is in our pocket.” McClellan resented the advice and soon after snubbed Lincoln when called on him at his home.
  • “original Gorilla”
    • McClellan first thought of Lincoln as a good-natured bumpkin, but later changed his assessment to original Gorilla—McClellan mistook Lincoln’s humility for weakness.

What can we learn from the arrogance of McClellan? Here are some suggested points to ponder:

Leadership Lessons

  1. Evaluate thoroughly before going into battle. Know the situation/organization thoroughly before trying to lead or trying anything new.
  2. Don’t rest on your laurels—success in one area (West Virginia) does not guarantee success in other areas.
  3. Don’t seek titles for titles sake.
  4. Do, then brag—or better yet, let others give you accolades.
  5. Don’t under-estimate your boss.
  6. Verify for yourself the strength of your competition. Do not rely on others’ intel.
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