The American Civil War – an education in leadership by Andre van Heerden
2011 marks the 150th anniversary of the outbreak of the American Civil War, and the next four years will see many commemorations of the terrible conflict that transformed forever the life of the United States. History in general overflows with lessons for leaders in all walks of life, but certain watershed events, like the fall of the Roman Republic, the French Revolution, and the World Wars of the 20th century, offer perhaps more sharply-defined demonstrations of the dynamics of leadership and misleadership. The American Civil War is one of those especially illuminating episodes.
Obviously, the prodigious figure of Abraham Lincoln continues to dominate all discourse on the Civil War, and there are few finer examples of practical wisdom and integrity for leaders today in politics, business, and the professions. There is a vast literature on Lincoln, but the recent book, Team of Rivals, by Doris Kearns Goodwin would be as good a place to start as any. The central theme of the book is Lincoln’s determination to pick the best people for the job, regardless of all-too-human inadequacies and the undisguised antipathy they sometimes showed towards him. He accepted personal responsibility for managing conflict and dissent within his team.
The performance of many other famous people chosen to bear the mantle of leadership in that maelstrom – Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, Nathan Bedford Forrest, George McClellan, William Sherman, and Ulysses Grant, to name an obvious few – dramatises the demands and duress of leadership in a time of upheaval and uncertainty. Again, there is a wealth of enlightening and entertaining historical analysis on all the major personalities, and even many less well-known ones, but the classic best-sellers by Bruce Catton and Shelby Foote will provide no end of insight and instruction for leaders today. Catton’s single-volume This Hallowed Ground would be an absorbing starting point.
The best video presentations of the tragedy and triumph of the conflict are Ken Burns’ superb documentary The Civil War, and Ronald F. Maxwell’s sweeping recreation of the battle of Gettysburg.
There is, however, much more to the leadership learning to be gained from the history of the Civil War than the characters and careers of the principle players. The great and enduring controversy centres on the cause of the conflagration, the Brothers’ War that tore apart not just a nation, but also communities and families. Obviously, the causes of any human conflict are complex in the extreme, and it was no different with the Civil War. Historians still contend with each other over the question as to whether the root cause was slavery or the constitutional issue of states rights. Did the seeds of the struggle lie in the institution of slavery itself, or in the federal constitution which balanced the power of the central government with that of the individual states? For example, if the New England states had felt they were being held back economically by the rural southern states, would they have had the right to secede from the Union? Would Arizona or Texas have the right to secede today?
Even though Lincoln had stated that he would leave slavery alone where it existed, believing as he did that it would die a natural death if it was not allowed to spread westwards, the political establishment in the southern states insisted that their state sovereignty was being violated. When they claimed the right to secede, and acted on it, they were declared to be in a state of rebellion against the United States and the war erupted.
Many southerners were opposed to slavery, and many northerners were racists, and as Lincoln pointed out, there were good and bad, weak and strong on both sides. People from north and south of the Mason-Dixon Line were sucked into the vortex created by the political wrangling that had troubled American politics for decades, but slavery had been an ugly scar on the nation for more than two centuries, and was a glaring contradiction of the ideals embodied in the Declaration of Independence and the Federal Constitution.
Neutrality in life, in the face of the injustices we encounter in our communities and in our workplaces, as well as in other countries, is impossible; sooner or later the injustice affects the lives of all, and we must follow our conscience. This is a particularly tragic reality for those whose consciences have not been properly formed through genuine education at home, at school, and in the community at large.
As we remember the savage struggle that started in 1861, the next four years will be a good time for all leaders to reflect on their responsibility for the lives of others that is the core reality of leadership, and to grow the insight into human nature, culture, and conflict that is so sorely lacking in our world today.