What Can the BattleField Teach Us About Leadership?

insurance leadership

As we celebrate the Memorial Day and Independence Day holidays, it is appropriate to reflect on the qualities necessary to be a good leader. The legacies of some of America’s renowned generals appear to be a good place to start.

Kevin McPoyle

Kevin McPoyle, CIC

When George McClellan graduated from the United States Military Academy at West Point in 1846, he was second in his class. Three years earlier, Ulysses S. Grant graduated, without distinction, in the middle of his class. Grant is remembered, though, as one of the finest horsemen to attend the academy. While Grant would go on to lead the Union Army to victory as commanding general during the War Between the States, McClellan would be relieved of his own command following repeated failures to act, assume risk and lean into the process.

Based on this one data point of evidence, it would seem an unimpressive academic career paired with expert transportation skills (horsemanship) are key leadership traits. However, before we get ahead of ourselves, Robert E. Lee, like McClellan, graduated second in his class at West Point. And like Grant, he was a brilliant battlefield leader, a risk taker and an effective encourager.

These three brief biographies would seem to imply classroom grades do not determine a person’s ability to lead, one way or the other. Let me add that Thomas Jefferson remembered George Washington, who also proved himself to be a successful battlefield leader, as “the best horseman of his age.” Maybe that means we should look for expert transportation skills when interviewing for C-suite positions.

In insurance as well as all other industries, the presence of a skilled leader is crucial. This is not to say that every person involved in the endeavor must be a leader. Actually, the contrary is the case. Just as there can be too many cooks in the kitchen, there can be too many leaders in the office.

Brokers and carriers alike depend upon the presence of a great many skilled individuals who are willing to follow the course set by a gifted leader. Minus the presence of this leader, their good efforts will be wasted. It is equally true that without skilled followers, the leader might as well be directing the efforts of the wind.

Each one of us is a collection of personal traits. Lee’s record of personal behavior at the academy was pristine. Lee’s father, who had proven himself to be a gifted battlefield leader during the Revolutionary War, eventually chose to leave the country he fought to create due to his own undisciplined personal behavior. Grant, whose lack of discipline regarding alcohol is part of his legend, heroically persevered through excruciating terminal illness to write what is considered to be the finest presidential memoir in order to leave a financial legacy for his wife, Julia.

When judging leaders, we tend to concentrate on their character traits. We search for courage, strength, fidelity and bravery. We want our leaders to be men and women of honor. While these personal traits are important to leadership, they do not constitute a complete picture.

If we are to believe his biographers, Apple’s Steve Jobs is a good example of a leader who lacked some of the character traits typically chiseled onto the base of a monument. Although he has been characterized as being occasionally insensitive, vindictive, abusive and narcissistic, Jobs captured the hearts and minds of those he led.

Jobs possessed a vision of excellence and was able to lead his team in efforts to realize that vision. Should we applaud him? Should we condemn him? I suppose we can only hope that had he lived long enough, he would have worked to address his personal shortcomings even as we today depend on the devices his leadership helped bring to us.

Like Jobs, a good leader must be able to capture hearts and minds. More than the promise of a paycheck or a 401(k) contribution, the leader must help his or her followers believe they are engaged in worthwhile, meaningful activity. Otherwise, these employees will either work without spirit or seek it in another workplace.

How a leader captures hearts and minds depends on the individual. I do not propose to deliver a prescription here. I only seek to indicate the need to do so. Otherwise, no great accomplishments will be achieved by an organization.

I will say that in our own risk management and risk insurance agency, we support a number of charitable organizations. In addition to doing good work to support our insureds, our team generously contributes their time and effort to supporting these organizations. By working toward a greater good, we believe our agency grows in strength and in heart.

Practical knowledge must be added to the attributes of a gifted leader. While the leader cannot be expected to possess the same depth of knowledge as skilled technicians, he or she will be better able to lead and make decisions based upon a working knowledge of the business.

A sense of the moment can help a person become a leader. When tested by fire, his or her ability to withstand the heat can demonstrate to others that a leader has risen up among them. Those who aspire to lead should be alert to these opportunities. However, remember that leadership isn’t a one-off event. The leader must report to work each day prepared to fearlessly make the right decisions and ready to change course without hesitation should these decisions not deliver the expected results.

Pointing an army in the right direction marks the beginning of every successful campaign. Of course, even to know which is the right direction is the result of careful research and thought. A skilled leader will know where an organization needs to go in order to succeed. He or she will also have chosen skilled lieutenants who make the thousands of decisions needed to get there.

This last thought brings me to my conclusion. As I noted earlier, a leader is of no consequence when standing alone. Gifted leaders will choose the right team members, nurture their growth, help them to reach their full potential, reward them for their efforts and delegate meaningful responsibility.

It is a symbiotic relationship; one cannot succeed without the other. Mutual respect and consideration by each regarding the challenges facing the other will determine an organization’s ability to reach its full potential.

During the days and years ahead, we will depend on the best efforts of leaders and those who are led as our industry is challenged to serve the evolving needs of insureds through new technology. I am honored to join with all of you as we embark upon this grand campaign.

Kevin McPoyle is the President and Co-Founder of KMRD Partners (reprinted from Carrier Management)

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