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5 Leadership Lessons from the Battle of the Little Bighorn


Chris Glennie, Assistant Director of Marketing (and amateur historian) for LSN, unearthed some valuable leadership lessons while reading up on the Battle of the Little Bighorn...

This week (7th July) in 1876, news reached Washington, D.C., in the middle of the nation’s centennial celebrations, of one of the USA’s most traumatic military losses - the Battle of the Little Bighorn, more famously known as Custer’s Last Stand.

I’ve been reading up on this period in preparation for a family ranch holiday in Wyoming this August.  The battle itself, the campaign that preceded it and the aftermath that saw most of the Lakota and Cheyenne surrendering themselves to reservation life within a year of their famous victory, have been much picked over by military historians. It’s not my intention to do the same here; during my preparation, however, I have been struck by certain aspects of the battle that resonate from a leadership perspective.

I am well aware of the pitfalls of drawing too many comparisons and lessons from different areas of human experience, but here are a few thoughts nonetheless:

  • Don’t get stuck in old paradigms. More colloquially: Expect the unexpected. Custer’s approach to the campaign, and the battle itself, was based on the totality of his previous experience, and all his actions flowed naturally and logically from that one place. Therefore, what he encountered on the banks of the Little Bighorn river - the size of the village, the number of warriors, the sheer state of readiness of the opposition forces - took him unawares. His preconceived ideas as to how things would play out - principally, that the gathered people would try to slip away without a fight - set him on a course of action that led to his eventual downfall.
  • ‘Commander’s intent’ is paramount. It’s possible that Custer had a plan, but he didn't make it clear to enough people what it was. One of the reasons we know so little about what really happened on Last Stand Hill - beyond the fact that there were no survivors to tell the tale -  is that we know so little about Custer’s original intentions. This lack of clarity about his commander’s intent led to those around him in the battle area not being able effectively to improvise a response when they sensed things weren’t going quite as they should.
  • Trust and mutual respect at the top are critical. These were non-existent at the Little Bighorn. Captain Benteen was possibly the one officer who, when the actual fighting began, showed the coolest head (even taking a nap during the siege of Reno's Hill). His lack of respect for Custer, however, and Custer’s reciprocal lack of trust in Benteen, meant that the latter, disastrously, did not rush to the former’s aid when faced with an unclear situation in which he had to make an independent judgement.
  • Focus, focus, focus. Custer split his forces into three, and allowed too much space between each of the separated units. Communication became next to impossible (and what efforts were made were critically hampered both by the lack of commander’s intent and the fact that they were reinterpreted by non-native English speakers). This lack of focus led to the weakening and eventual destruction of the troops directly under Custer’s command.
  • Strategy beats tactics. Sure, Custer made mistakes and paid a heavy price. He lost a battle. But the United States was not ever going to lose the war. The irony of the Last Stand is that in reality it was the Lakota and Cheyenne who had their last stand at the Little Bighorn. They had not the men, resources, food or any other of the wherewithal to resist the US Government for any sustained period of time. It was a great tactical win, but in the end, thats all it was. Strategically, it was irrelevant.

My final thought is this: It’s easy to do this in hindsight, to review and sift the evidence with a cool head, and make judgements from the proverbial armchair. The real measure of leadership is to make those cool judgements in the heat of battle itself, with a clear head, while dealing with considerable uncertainty - and even fear. There’s no room for hotheads in that situation. No room for grandstanding, for ego.

In the end, for me, Custer was a hothead; a brave one no doubt, even a charismatic one, but only in the game for the greater glory of George Armstrong Custer. But hotheads don’t just burn themselves out, they bring others down with them. Don’t be a hothead.

Chris Glennie, LSN

More information
Read up on the Battle of the Little Bighorn on Wikipedia

Chris Glennie is Assistant Director for Marketing at LSN.

> Connect with Chris on LinkedIn

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