August 7, 2014
How Fear Of Failure Crippled A Civil War General

“We are about to be photographed,” Lincoln wrote to his wife, “if we can sit still long enough. I feel Gen. M. should have no problem.”

George McClellan had it all. The prominent son of Philadelphia society, “The Young Napoleon” built a sterling military reputation based on his performance at West Point, his fine service in the war in Mexico and as a chronicler of military campaigns in the Crimea before leaving the Army to pursue a successful career as a railroad man.

When the Civil War erupted, he was plucked from private life and installed as the general-in-chief of the Union army. President Lincoln put troops and supplies at his disposal and asked just one thing in return: Attack the enemy and hold onto him at all costs.

But faced with the weight of command and the risk of failure, McClellan repeatedly failed to attack and never positioned himself to hold onto anything. After his pointless Peninsula Campaign in Virginia yielded slim results (and public opinion in the North moved from war fever to frustration), the president relieved him of his duties, famously saying that McClellan had “the slows.”

The story continues from there. McClellan ran for president, unsuccessfully of course. Lincoln found a general who actually fought battles in Ulysses S. Grant, and eventually put him in charge of ending the war, which Grant did mostly by doing what Lincoln had asked McClellan — attacking the enemy and holding onto him at all costs. And Grant did end up president.

It is easy to read about the Civil War and cluck in judgment at poor George McClellan. Didn’t he know that Lincoln was running out of patience? Couldn’t he see that the enemy was as afraid of his forces as he was of theirs? Didn’t he know that time was on the side of the South and eventually the Northern public would tire of “preserving the Union?”

Whether or not McClellan knew the answers to these questions is irrelevant, because knowledge is never enough. In fact, McClellan lacked one key element – decisiveness – that prevented him from turning knowledge into action. But McClellan is not alone. The truth is, when we look across the corporate landscape, far more McClellans than Grants are at the helm.

Over the years, clients have come to us with stark descriptions of the dire situations they confront or once-in-a-lifetime opportunities they can seize with action now. We sit down, listen, feel the energy and drive the conversation toward a bold plan, complete with hard-nosed op-eds, advertising campaigns that will turn the tide and interviews where executives can make a clear and convincing case.

Then the moment comes to pull the trigger. What happens next makes all the difference. Some clients give the “go” order quickly and cleanly. But far more stop dead in their tracks, hesitate, wait, discuss or, fatally it seems, backtrack on goals they once outlined as essential. Business leaders are immobilized by their doubts, while adversaries gain a competitive edge.

These critical decisions are defining moments for a business leader. Decisive leaders win.

Lincoln never asked McClellan to win every battle. He only asked him to act decisively, take the offensive and reinforce success. After all, the president knew he had a war to win – and the search for perfection was the first casualty he was willing to accept.

General Grant understood the task. Like the best CEOs, he was focused on the win at all times. He kept his eyes fixed on the end result he sought. He was willing to take measured risks and absorb losses along the way. He trusted his subordinates to make decisions – even when he wasn’t there to consult on them.

The modern CEO may not face the same stakes, but the same lessons apply. Whether you are more McClellan or Grant is a choice you can make every day.

Pete Janhunen
Pete Janhunen is a principal at 50PointOne. A West Point graduate and former Army officer, he has spent more than 17 years leading successful communications efforts for high-profile organizations. Connect with him on Twitter @50PointOne.

Other Articles by Pete Janhunen:

Talk To The Troops: Why Communication Is Key To Effective Leadership

Why You Should Resolve To Become A Better Listener

3 Tips For Bouncing Back From A Mistake