The Washington Post

Looking to grow as a leader? Then look to the past

No time has been more turbulent for leaders than the present. At least that’s what we like to think.

Even a superficial review of our nation’s history, however, will show that we’ve encountered plenty of tough times. For developing leaders – often eager to move forward quickly – it’s important to slow down and study our history to avoid committing the sins of the past.

For example, my organization, the Partnership for Public Service, examined the lessons learned from the Battle of Antietam as a part of our Excellence in Government Fellows program.

Now even your most difficult day at work cannot compare to what’s considered the bloodiest single day in American history. About this time of year, nearly 150 years ago, some 4,000 Americans lost their lives and another 18,000 were wounded in Sharpsburg, Maryland.

Now we may not have to worry about cannons and muskets as much as we worry about emails and stock markets, but many of the lessons still apply.

· Especially in times of crisis, put your people first.  Robert E. Lee, leading his army of Northern Virginia, assumed that his forces would be motivated to invade Maryland and that as many as 20,000 sympathetic Marylanders would join the cause. He was wrong. Many of Lee’s troops refused to invade. Previously, they were defending their states, not attacking others. Only about 200 Marylanders joined his side of the fight. As developing leaders, you need to be as concerned about others’ goals as much as your own. Take the time to understand how you might help your direct reports, peers and your supervisor, and you’re all more likely to enjoy success.

· Communicate individually and with your team as a whole. Lee’s counterpart in the Battle of Antietam was George McClellan. As part of his strategy, he set up the headquarters of the Union Army more than a mile away from the action. While he issued orders to each of his subordinate commanders for their individual units, he failed to communicate the big picture. As a result, their efforts were uncoordinated and McClellan was unable to respond to the changing circumstances quickly. As leaders, even developing leaders, you must be able to draw a clear line of site between you, your team’s efforts and the agency’s mission. Plus, you need to listen to your colleagues on the front lines to learn how you need to adapt.

· Don’t worry about winning every battle, worry about the war. The Battle of Antietam was a draw – McClellan failed to fully defeat Lee and Lee withdrew back to Virginia.  Although this was no victory for the Union, it was enough for President Abraham Lincoln to deliver the Emancipation Proclamation and abolish slavery. Those actions discouraged the French and English from providing aide to the Confederacy. Even as you lost some “battles” while working on a project or leading your team, try to see beyond the immediate consequences of your actions and focus on the big-picture results. Set your team’s expectations accordingly so they don’t feel like every set-back is defeat. It’s just part of the journey.

Using history as a guide, you may find yourself developing new ideas and applying the lessons learned in unexpected ways. 

What are some of your favorite leadership lessons from history? How have you applied those lessons to working at your agency?  Please share your stories and ideas by adding a comment below, or send an email to me at

More from On Leadership:

How to become a great federal leader

Rocking the boat in federal agencies

Be in the know on everything we’re covering here at The Post’s On Leadership section. Follow us on Twitter and “like” our page on Facebook.

Tom Fox, of the Partnership for Public Service, explores workplace issues and provides advice for federal managers through analysis, interviews and reader Q&As in his Federal Coach blog for On Leadership.



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