November 2014

All In: Alonzo Cushing and the Leader's Commitment

By Ed Ruggero

News Item: On November 6, 2014, President Obama will make a posthumous award of the Medal of Honor to the relatives of a Civil War soldier killed in action in 1863.

A National Park Service plaque on Gettysburg's Cemetery Ridge shows a photograph of Lieutenant Alonzo Cushing of the US Army. His dark hair is thick, a bit wavy, his jaw a gentle curve. He looks like a young man who has not yet learned to shave. One of Cushing's soldiers said he "looked more like a schoolgirl than a warrior, but he was the best fighting man I ever saw."

In July 1863 Cushing commanded a battery of six guns near the center of the Federal line, just a few yards from where his photo is displayed. On the hot afternoon of July 3, a furious Confederate bombardment destroyed all but two of Cushing's guns and left his unit a bloody mess, with shattered equipment, slaughtered horses and dead and wounded men spread around the battery position. When the enemy fire slackened, Cushing caught glimpses through the smoke of thirteen thousand or so Confederate infantry headed his way in a massive attack. The young lieutenant, wounded in the leg and groin, had his two remaining guns wheeled to the low stone wall where more Federal soldiers waited to repel the enemy. Too weak from blood loss to stand, Cushing relayed orders through a sergeant and kept his guns firing as the Confederates pressed forward, some even breaching the Federal position. Propped against the wheel of his gun, Cushing was still fighting when a shot through the mouth killed him instantly. He was twenty-two.

Cushing's body was eventually interred at West Point, his alma mater. According to his mother's wishes, his gravestone there is inscribed, "Faithful Unto Death."

When Cushing moved his guns forward on July 2, he did not know that he would be at the exact center of the climactic charge. He could not have known that this battle by a Pennsylvania crossroads would become one of the key turning points in the Civil War. He certainly did not know that on some day in the distant future an American President would tell his story to a hushed crowd at the White House. What he did know was that he had a responsibility to his mission and to his men, and that was enough. Alonzo Cushing was all in.

Business operations rarely require us to be "faithful unto death." The challenge for corporate leaders is to be committed when the stakes are not very high, when it's just another day of no particular drama.

I worked with an executive who told her team that developing them was one of her most important responsibilities. She showed remarkable patience when coaching even the newest employees, the ones who did not have her twenty-six years of experience and so took a little longer to understand what was changing in the business. She never gave into the temptation to say, "Just do it this way. Trust me, I've seen it a thousand times."

"If I do that," she told me, "Then they haven't learned to work through the problems they're going to face. I can't possibly prepare them for every contingency; I've got to show them how to think."

This approach took patience, but I never saw her flag. There were days when there was no time for Socratic dialogue; on those occasions she explained why she was being directive and she always circled back later to talk though the decision with the team. Even when they made mistakes, when things did not turn out as planned, she maintained her calm demeanor and looked for teachable moments. Just as Alonzo Cushing had committed to his mission and his men, this executive had committed to her role as coach and mentor. Being "all in" probably won't get her to the White House, but it can win loyalty that cannot be found any other way.

Ed Ruggero runs The Gettysburg Leadership Experience, in which executives visit the Civil War battlefield to learn leadership lessons that apply today. Ed also leads experiential learning visits to Normandy, Lexington & Concord and to Valley Forge.