The Civil Dozen — Part Two (b)

Part Two [2]

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.


4. Being a self-starter is a core leadership trait.

A self-starter is a person who is sufficiently motivated or ambitious to start a new career or business or to pursue education and skill acquisition without the help of others.

Chamberlain was a prototypical self-starter. For example, Chamberlain learned to play both the bass viol and organ. He did this by himself and with no formal instruction or training.


5. Mastering multiple skills – in preparation for the future – is what often distinguishes oneself from the crowd.

To effectively influence people, you have to stand for something. You have to be something. You want to be the brown egg in a carton of white eggs! Gone are the days of being content to simply be a box of Cheerios on the cereal aisle and expect a sizeable number of people to randomly pick us out of a crowd. [Sinclair, Branded: Sharing Jesus with a Consumer Culture, p. 64] Gone are the days where your value as an employee was linked to your loyalty and seniority. Companies use branding to develop strong, enduring relationship with customers. Likewise, you must do the same as you prepare for the future.

If you don’t build a differentiated reputation, if you don’t master multiple skills, you risk being commoditized. You become just one of many un-differentiated accountants, HR managers, programmers, salespersons, technical leads, or account managers. Consider what we think about something being a commodity. If something is a commodity, we are willing to buy it from the lowest cost provider. Commodities are neither valued nor treasured. Commodities are viewed as both expendable and replaceable. Don’t be a commodity. Choose to stand out from the crowd.

Chamberlain – throughout his life – acquired new skills. He obtained two different degrees, learned how to excel at playing musical instruments, and mastered nine languages. He taught. He became a soldier. He became a leader of men. He distinguished himself from the crowd.


6. Being a perpetual, humble student is the mark of a great leader.


Humility is not taught in management courses or in many leadership courses, for that matter. Organizations want their leaders to be visionary, authoritative, confident, capable, and motivational. Yet, humility is the primary requirement for leadership. Or stated in a different manner, humility is the foundation of leadership. Why is humility essential to leadership, it is because humility:


  • Acknowledges our sinfulness

The Psalmist writes: “Who can discern his errors? Acquit me of hidden faults.” (Psalm 19:12-13). This acknowledgement of man’s sinfulness has been a foundational principle of all successful governments. For example, this acknowledgement led our founding fathers to build into the very fabric of our governmental structure, a separation of powers. Each branch of government – executive, legislative, and judicial – is bridled by a series of checks and balances. Why? As Lord Achton stated in 1887: “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”


  • Comprehends our creatureliness.

The second reason that we need humility in leadership is because it comprehends our creatureliness. The word “humility” itself comes from the Latin word humus, which means “dirt” or “earth.” True humility should never let us lose sight of our human mortality with all of its limitations (Armour, 2007).


  • Authenticates our humanness.

The third reason that we need humility in leadership is because it authenticates our humanness. Or as John Baldoni states in his article entitled “Humility”: “Humility is a strand between leader and follower that underscores one common element – our humanity.”


Chamberlain was a perpetual, humble student. He quickly and willingly submitted himself to others. This submission allowed him to grow intellectually and spiritually. His trait of humility paved the way for leadership greatness later.

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