The pile of boulders called Little Round Top is one of the most visited spots on the Gettysburg battlefield. It was there on July 2, 1863 that a thirty-four year old professor of rhetoric and his volunteer soldiers defended the vulnerable left flank of the Federal Army against repeated rebel assaults. When the menace was greatest and the enemy threatened to crush his line, Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain led his men in a sudden, surprise charge. The unexpected move, the momentum of the downhill rush and their bayonets broke the Confederate assault.
When I visit this section of the field during The Gettysburg Leadership Experience, group discussion turns to creativity. In a tight spot, Chamberlain— a citizen soldier who’d been in uniform for barely a year—came up with a solution that worked. How do we foster that kind of remarkable creativity on our own teams?
Recently one executive focused on another aspect of the story: in addition to being creative, Chamberlain had been coachable.
Chamberlain’s commander, up until a month before the battle, was a twenty-seven year old professional soldier named Adelbert Ames. Ames, an 1861 graduate of West Point, had already been promoted for his performance in battle by the time he met Chamberlain. The former professor, recognizing his own lack of training and experience, latched on to the much younger man to learn as much as he could about battle tactics and leadership. When Ames was promoted in May 1863, Chamberlain took command of the regiment; less than two months later came his test on the rocky slope of that hill.
Coachable leaders are, among other things:
Humble: I accept that I don’t know everything and, in fact, may be quite ignorant in some areas. I seek out smart people who can help.
Open-minded: It’s easy to dismiss new ideas as impractical or impossible. Coachable leaders are receptive to new ideas.
Listeners: Ever hear the expression, “Eighty-percent of people in any conversation are either talking or waiting to talk”? Waiting to talk is not the same as listening. To listen, I have to stop preparing my own remarks and actively seek to understand the other person’s position or explanation.
Willing to put ideas into action. My friend Scott Snook of the Harvard Business School prefaces his workshops by talking about the bookends of adult learning. Before any learning experience comes our attitude as we approach the session: “There are new ideas out there that are worth my attention.” On the other side of the learning is what we do with it. The coachable leader is willing to try new things.
Of course, just because an idea is new does not mean it’s good. Nevertheless, I should ask myself this question from time to time: when was the last time I moved out of my comfort zone and tried something new?
If it’s been a while since I stepped out of my usual way of doing things, it could be that I am not actively seeking new ideas. I need to read more, to network more, to educate myself and find a mentor—maybe even one who does not fit the typical profile of mentor. It could mean that I need to work on being coachable.
About the author: Ed Ruggero is the creator and facilitator of The Gettysburg Leadership Experience, in which participants visit the site of the Civil War battle to learn how to better lead modern organizations. Join him for lively discussions about what we can learn about leadership then that applies today. He offers open enrollment programs, or you can bring a group on dates that fit your schedule.
Reprinted with permission.