Leadership Part 1: Lessons from Douglas Southall Freeman


One of our employees has found herself in progressively responsible roles.

Excelling in whatever role we’ve placed her, she continuously earns more trust and more responsibility until we inevitably end up promoting her into a new position. We recently placed her in a position of explicit leadership – one which caused her to ask:

“Where can I learn about being a leader?”

The question gave me pause. As a retired Navy officer and a business owner, leadership is something I’ve practiced for the last 25+ years. In the military, leadership is taught, but it’s also learned apart from explicit teaching; it’s acquired through experience. Our rising leader started as a school teacher. Without a degree, she was a noted autodidact with a penchant for learning, but without the previous need to focus on leadership, it was apparently a topical destination to which her reading hadn’t yet taken her. Or, a topic for which reading alone does not suffice.

As I reflected on the question, I reached for my go-to volume on the topic, Douglas Southall Freeman on Leadership. By way of introduction, DSF is a two-time Pulitzer Prize Winner who lived at the turn of the twentieth century. Born in 1886 to a father who served in Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, Freeman spent his early years in Lynchburg near the home of Confederate General, Jubal Early. He displayed an early interest in Southern history and went on to receive a PhD in history from Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. In addition to his Pulitzer-prize winning biographies of George Washington and Robert E. Lee, he is the noted author of Lee’s Dispatches, an important primary source for Civil War scholars, and Lee’s Lieutenants: A Study in Command, which established Freeman as the preeminent military historian of his time.

Douglas Southall Freeman Quote

AZ Quotes – https://www.azquotes.com/author/65484-Douglas_Southall_Freeman

Douglas Southall Freeman on Leadership is a collection of lectures delivered at West Point, the Naval Academy, and other institutions, where he became a sought-after advisor to some of America’s premier military leaders, including Chester Nimitz, George Marshall, and Dwight D. Eisenhower. DSF considered one of these lectures, which he referred to as “Old Number One,” as his standard on leadership. In this lecture, he outlined three primary principles of leadership on which I’d like to reflect in this installment: 1) Know your stuff; 2) Be a man; and 3) Look after your men.

Know your stuff

In Freeman’s (primarily military) context, he meant that soldiers and sailors were apt to respect leaders who knew what they were doing, which tended to increase one’s chance of survival. George Patton famously remarked, “America loves a winner, and will not tolerate a loser” (yes, this is an actual Patton quote and not merely a line from one of the greatest military movies ever made). The principle extends beyond the military, though. In the movie, Patton, George C. Scott preceded this quote with, “When you were kids, you all admired the champion marble shooters, the fastest runners, big league ball players, the toughest boxers” and succeeded it with, “Americans play to win all the time. I wouldn’t give a hoot in hell for a man who lost and laughed.”

Knowing your stuff is readily extended analogically to the sports domain. It is rare to find the captain of a sports team that is not also — if not the best — at least one of the better players on the team; it’s hard to be a leader from the bench. At left is Derek Jeter — known to baseball fans everywhere simply as “the Captain.” Jeter served as Yankees team captain for twelve years. He will also no doubt soon be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame after completing a career that made him the Yankees’ all-time career leader in hits, doubles, games played, stolen bases, times on base, plate appearances, and at-bats.

Derek Jeter

The principle extends also to leadership in any organization — including for — and non-profit businesses. Your employees love winning far more than losing, and will naturally gravitate to people who know their stuff and foster success by that knowledge. Invest the time and resources necessary into becoming an expert in your particular field, and you will improve your leadership skills.

Be a man (or woman!)

Political correctness aside (Freeman spoke in the early 1900s to all-male military academies), the principle remains. But what does it mean to “be a man?” As a father of three sons aged 17–22, I have taught them throughout their lives that the answer to that question can be summed up in one word: responsibility. When they were young boys, they could rely on their parents for provision and protection. A grown man looks to no one outside himself for his provision and protection. He accepts the truth that no man is an island, and every man is stronger when he is surrounded by friends. He draws strength from competent men and women around him who complement his strengths and compensate for his weaknesses. Ultimately, though, he is prepared to accept responsibility for himself and his lot in life. In order to take credit for his successes in life, he must also be prepared to accept responsibility for his failures. And not just his own failures, but the failures of everyone and everything in the organization for which he or she is responsible.

When a Navy ship runs aground, the helmsman steering the ship is not held primarily accountable. First, the Officer of the Deck must answer for his or her watch team. Beyond that, the Captain must answer for his or her entire ship. Whose orders was the helmsman following? Why weren’t the watch teams better trained? Were they properly rested? Did they have the correct equipment for the job, etc.? A leader that is prepared to accept responsibility for the entire organization — especially its failures — is a leader men and women will be glad to follow.

So, whether you are a male or a female leader, Freeman’s advice remains sound. Be a man (or a woman) who takes responsibility. Take control of uncertain situations. Be decisive. Have courage in your convictions. Lead from the front.

Look after your people

Make no mistake, leadership is important. Leaders have a tremendous impact on an organization. In my Navy career, I found that within six months of a change of command an entire ship took on the personality of the skipper. Was the skipper a bold, daring leader? The ship would operate “on the edge,” taking risks and developing the instincts that the skipper valued. Was he a micromanager? The officers and crew would develop a sense of fear and inhibition, becoming afraid to make a decision that might offend the skipper’s sensibilities. The side effects of leadership — good or bad — are inescapable.

No matter how important the leader, though, no organization can succeed without the “crew” being well-trained, competent, and eager to succeed. Freeman recognized that great leaders look after their people in such a way that their basic needs were never a concern. If an Army was well-fed, well-trained, and well-equipped, morale issues were staved off and the Army could focus on what it needed to do: fight to win. Similarly, in business, leaders need to ensure their people are equipped for success. Know them.  Know their family situations. Pay them well and provide a benefits package that keeps their families secure. Provide the training and resources necessary to do their job well, so they can focus on serving clients without distraction. At Aegis, we believe in demonstrating loyalty to our people before we ask for it in return. Look after your people, and more than likely, they will look after you.

Hopefully, you can gain some wisdom from a near-forgotten figure in American history, Douglas Southall Freeman. Know your stuff. Be a man (or a woman!). Look after your people. Next, I will suggest that some of the best leadership lessons can be learned from studying history.


Header photo on VisualHunt.com