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A Leadership Lesson from Joshua Chamberlain

Forty-four days before the Battle of Gettysburg, Union Colonel Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain took command of the 20th Maine Volunteer Infantry Regiment. Along with 1,000 other men, Chamberlain had joined 20th Maine at its inception one year earlier. He had no skill or training as a soldier, much less as a leader; in fact, he had spent three years at the Bangor Theological Seminary. He took leave from his teaching position at Bowdoin College when patriotic fervor called him to duty. So unfit for war was he that college officials sent a message to the Governor of Maine warning that Chamberlain was "no fighter, but only a mild-mannered common student." Despite that glowing recommendation, the Union army commissioned Chamberlain as a lieutenant colonel.

Entering the third summer of the Civil War, 20th Maine was down to 358 men. The rest had been killed or wounded, or had simply deserted. Four days into his command, Chamberlain received notice that 120 badly needed troops would be joining his unit. While this should have been welcome news, the transfer order described the men as mutineers from the recently decommissioned 2nd Regiment of Maine. In fact, the men, transported to 20th Maine by armed guards, faced certain court martial after the war. The general signing the order instructed Chamberlain to "make them do duty or shoot them down the moment they refuse."

Shortly after arriving, the mutineers elected a spokesperson to justify their insubordination to Chamberlain. Having enlisted for three-year terms of duty, the 120 men were surprised to learn that their fellow 2nd Maine soldiers had received two-year stints and were already going home. With victory seemingly out of reach, and their faith in the Union leadership diminished, they wanted to go home, too.

Chamberlain faced his first serious leadership dilemma. He could shoot the derelicts if they refused duty; however, he would be shooting his fellow Mainers. He could continue to hold them prisoners, which would further tax his troops. Or, he could re-recruit them. He chose to re-recruit them.

Chamberlain called the malcontents together to address them. He showed them his official roster on which he had added their names, not as prisoners, but as soldiers in his unit. He voiced appreciation for their grievance, promised to see what he could do for their cause, and hinted that taking up arms might help them avert court martial. Finally, he explained the serious challenges the unit faced in the coming weeks and told them he needed their help. Afterward, all but six of the mutineers bought in and went on to fight with him at Gettysburg where the regiment successfully defended Little Round Top and captured almost 400 Confederate prisoners.

Although Chamberlain's exact words to the mutineers are lost to history, accounts from those who heard them indicate that he focused on what today we call the "big picture." He stressed the purpose for which they originally agreed to fight: "to set men free." Without their help, he assured them, the war would be lost and so too their cause.

When your own workplace mutineers create a leadership dilemma for you, rather than shooting them down with common punishments, choose to re-recruit them. Remind them why they joined your organization in the first place, and show them those values still exist. When you do, you'll inspire them to help you fight your battles.


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