The Civil Dozen — Part Two (a)

He was born Lawrence Joshua Chamberlain – on September 8, 1828 – in a cottage near the family homestead in Brewer, Maine. Brewer was a farming and shipbuilding community. Chamberlain’s parents named him after the heroic Commodore James Lawrence who had immortalized the words: “Don’t give up the ship!” The eldest of five children, young Lawrence was raised as a Puritan and Huguenot (French Protestant) in a household which prized good manners, cheerfulness, morality, education, and industry. During his adolescence, scholastic studies and farm work kept the shy, serious, and dutiful youth busy. This combination of scholastic studies and farm work taught him many lessons. One of the most important was earned while plowing the rough fields. His strict and taciturn father taught him that sheer willpower followed by positive action could accomplish seemingly impossible tasks. His father, a former lieutenant colonel in the military, wished for his son to enter the army. But his mother, a religious woman, wanted him to study for the ministry. After much consideration on the matter, Lawrence agreed to enter the ministry if he could become a missionary in a foreign land, a popular career choice of the time.

In 1848, Lawrence entered Bowdoin College at Brunswick, where he began using Joshua as his first name. During these initial years away from home, the introverted 19-year-old felt lonely and spoke little because he was embarrassed by his propensity for stammering. Joshua – remembering the lesson from his father about sheer willpower followed by positive action overcoming seemingly impossible tasks – learned to overcome his stammering by “singing out” phrases on a “wave of breath.” By his third year at Bowdoin, he had won awards in both composition and oratory.

As a student, Joshua earned a reputation for standing behind his principles. He refused to cut corners. He refused to cheat. He refused to even marry the girl he loved until he had a means for providing for her. This sense of honor never deserted him, even when under fire. When not pursuing his studies, Joshua enjoyed singing and playing musical instruments. Without any training, he learned to play both the bass viol and the organ by himself. In fact, he played the organ so well, he became the college chapel organist.

In 1852, after he graduated Phi Beta Kappa with his bachelor’s degree from Bowdoin, he completed a three-year master’s degree at Bangor Theological Seminary. Finally, in 1855, he married Francis (Fanny) Caroline Adams – the girl he had loved for over six years. Joshua was elected professor of rhetoric and oratory at Bowdoin in the Spring of 1856. By 1861, he was elected to the chair of modern languages. Joshua was well-qualified for this position, having mastered nine languages – Greek, Latin, French, German, Hebrew, Spanish, Italian, Arabic, and Syriac – in preparation for a career in overseas ministry.

All of that changed with the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861. Joshua felt a strong desire to serve his country. Despite the displeasure of the Bowdoin staff – Joshua’s strong sense of honor resulted in him becoming a Lieutenant Colonel of the 20th Regiment of Maine Volunteers in August, 1862.

The scholar-turned-soldier knew that there was much to learn. Joshua immediately took advantage of his position as second-in-command and studied every military work he could place his hands on. He stayed up late at night studying and memorizing these works. Joshua pressed his commander, West Point graduate Colonel Adelbert Ames, to teach him everything Ames knew about military strategy.  In a matter of months, the scholar-turned-soldier was as capable as all but the best of the military officers in the Union army.

 Part Two Lessons

 There are several leadership lessons that we can take from the early story of Joshua Chamberlain. These soft skills are both needed and relevant in the 21st century.

 1. Civil Leadership Trait #1 — Sheer willpower followed by positive action can accomplish seemingly impossible tasks.

We cannot make things happen through sheer desire and determination. Willpower must also be paired with positive action. Many people (including me) are intrigued by the NBC show, “The Biggest Loser.” We watch in amazement as a group of men and women shed 75, 100, or even 150 pounds. It is very obvious that willpower – the ability to resist short-term temptations in order to meet long-term objectives – is a critical part of their success. Yet all the willpower in the world, will not enable one to shed that many pounds, without workouts (positive action) totaling nearly 8 hours a day.

Effective leadership needs to expect “short-termitis” (i.e., the tendency to sacrifice the future for the present). Effective leadership needs to model and insist upon strong willpower. Effective leadership needs to model and insist upon positive action (i.e., initiatives that increase revenues, decrease costs, increase efficiency, and/or decrease risks).

Chamberlain resisted the urge to stop plowing (something with a long-term benefit) in order to head to the waterhole (a real short-term temptation). That is because sheer willpower followed by positive action can accomplish seemingly impossible tasks.

2. Civil Leadership Trait #2 — Impediments are merely something to overcome.

An impediment is anything that slows or blocks progress. An impediment can be physical (e.g., a fallen tree in the road), intangible (e.g., piracy is an impediment to taking a pleasure cruise off the shores of Somalia), real (e.g., stuttering), or perceived (e.g., presumption of unimportance). An impediment can be personal or institutional. An impediment can be created by leaders or by employees.

Effective leaders address impediments. They do not run away from them. Effective leaders assess the situation, consider alternatives, and take action.

Chamberlain refused to accept the impediment of stuttering. He studied how to overcome it. He relentlessly practiced how to defeat it. He mastered the very skills that were constrained by the handicap. That is because impediments are merely something to overcome.

3. Civil Leadership Trait #3 — Developing a reputation for standing behind your principles will yield only respect and success.

John Maxwell states: “Character makes trust possible. And trust makes leadership possible.” Whenever you lead people, it’s as if they consent to take a journey with you. The way that trip is going to turn out is predicted by your character. Character communicates consistency. Character communicates potential. Character communicates respect. (The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership)

Chamberlain – throughout his life – stood for the principles that he embraced. Sometimes he found himself in agreement with others. Sometimes, he did not. In either case, his reputation for standing behind his principles defined his character. His reputation for standing behind his principles yielded only respect and success. It will have the same effect in your leadership as you exercise this civil leadership trait.

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