Doing Nothing Is Everything

C.Davis Headshot 01.24.19
By: Captain Christopher Davis, USMC*

As the Confederate Army limped its way back towards sanctuary in the aftermath of the Battle of Gettysburg, military accounts of the failed Union pursuit suggest the Civil War was prolonged and thousands of American lives lost as a result of the delay.  Inaction in the military has been unforgivable since man first raised a sword.  In Rome, Julius Caesar was credited for suggesting, “[i]t is easier to find men who will volunteer to die than to find those who are willing to endure pain with patience.”  Doing nothing as a leader can be extremely detrimental, but in confronting enormous challenges, it is often the investment of time before decisively acting which goes most unappreciated in the analysis of a leaders’ abilities.

Leadership is the fine art of action.  History is written by the examples of leaders who acted in extraordinary ways.  Prudence and restraint are an anathema towards progress.  Yet our experiences suggest that different situations require different leadership actions and that no “one-size-fits-all” theory ever existed.  Thus, learning how to be an effective leader in a specific environment can vary greatly.  Leading yourself is one of the most important things you will ever do as a leader.  It is also one of the most challenging aspects, requiring a deliberate effort of constant evaluation and growth.  James MacGregor Burns, in his innovative book Leadership, provides insight when trying to account for the dramatic variation possible among effective leaders:

Leadership is leaders inducing followers to act for certain goals that represent the values and the motivations—the wants and needs, the aspirations and expectations—of both leaders and followers.  And the genius of leadership lies in the manner in which leaders see and act on their own and their followers’ values and motivations.

We owe those entrusted to our care to be the best version of ourselves.  To become a great leader of others you must take charge and commit to the task of learning to better lead yourself.  My own experiences have taught me that learning about leadership and developing one’s skills is a continuous process that requires determined effort and practice.  One could suggest leadership should not be viewed as a destination but as a constant journey throughout our life.  If we look at it with that perspective, then we will never give in to the temptation of believing that we have mastered being a leader.

Sometimes this commitment requires that, after internalizing and evaluating a problem, the best course of action is to do nothing at all.  More precisely, not to take outward action.  This is counterintuitive because we all believe a keystone of great leadership underscores one’s decisiveness.  When faced with a tough situation, it is key that a leader acts quickly and without waffling to face a challenge.  Any military officer knows the importance of maintaining the capacity for reflection, especially as a complicated battlefield evolves – commonly referred to as the “fog of war.”

Corporate leaders must conduct a similar analysis.  Harvard “leadership guru” and Cambridge Leadership Associate Ronal Heifetz, calls this “getting off the dance floor and going to the balcony.” In this analogy, Heifetz points out that the most successful leaders can be in the moment and of the moment at the same time.  This is seen in the abilities of great athletes who can see the whole playing field from their vantage point.  For a leader, the more seamless this transition between affecting the moment and observing its effects, the better.

Leadership is an improvisational art.  One is guided by an overarching strategic vision and values, but what one actually does from moment to moment cannot be scripted.  One acts upon the events as they unfold.  Relying on the metaphor, one must move back and forth between the dance floor and the balcony to fully comprehend the effects – desired and unanticipated – of one’s immediate actions, adjusting accordingly along the way.  Sustaining good leadership, then, requires one to see what is happening and to understand how to impact the next action.

Knowing when not to act, especially in the face of incomparable pressure, is harder than it might seem.  President Abraham Lincoln had the discipline to restrain himself, even in the face of overwhelming external pressure to act.  On July 14, 1863, eleven days after the Union army’s victory at Gettysburg, the Confederate army led by Lieutenant General Robert E. Lee was in disarray and disoriented by defeat.  Lee directed his army south towards the Potomac River, the national boundary between the Union and Confederate states, seeking refuge in Virginia.  But, by the time Lee’s army reached the northern banks of the river, it was impassable as a result of the unrelenting summer rains that recently affected the region.  Lee’s army was trapped.

Lincoln immediately wired General George Meade, commander of the Union army, to surround Lee at the river’s edge and force his surrender.  Lincoln knew this action might effectively cease the deadliest war in the nation’s history.  The battles of Chickamauga, Chattanooga, the Wilderness, Spotsylvania, Cold Harbor, Petersburg, Saylor’s Creek and Appomattox, not to mention numerous other smaller skirmishes, might have never occurred.  But Meade elected not to pursue Lee.  This hesitation to act must have been excruciating for Lincoln, who recognized the gravity of this opportunity to bring the nation’s suffering, and his own, to an end.

History will never know exactly what crossed Lincoln’s mind during those excruciating days of inaction by Meade.  However, in the days following Lincoln’s tragic assassination, his personal effects were gathered and we became intimately exposed to a life lesson, grander than most of his iconic speeches given during the period.  In the days following General Meade’s failure, Lincoln penned a scathing letter of reprimand expressing his frustration.  It starts in no uncertain terms:

“Major General Meade . . .

“I m very–very–grateful to you for the magnificent success you gave the cause of the country at Gettysburg; and I am sorry now to be the author of the slightest pain to you . . .

“The case, summarily stated is this: You fought and beat the enemy at Gettysburg, and, of course, to say at the least, his loss was as great as yours.  He retreated, and you did not, as it seemed to me, pressingly pursue him; but a flood in the river detained him, till, by slow degrees, you were again upon him.  You had at least twenty thousand veteran troops directly with you, and as many more raw ones within supporting distance . . . while it was not possible that he received a single recruit, and yet you stood and let the flood run down, bridges be built, and the enemy move away at his leisure, without attacking him.

“Again, my dear general, I do not believe you appreciate the magnitude of the misfortune involved in Lee’s escape.  He was within your easy grasp, and to have closed upon him would, in connection with our other late successes, have ended the war. As it is, the war will be prolonged indefinitely . . . [and y]our golden opportunity is gone, and I am distressed immeasurably because of it.”

The letter was found sealed in Lincoln’s desk with the words “never sent or signed” scribbled across the exterior.  Remarkably, despite the dire straits in which Lincoln found himself, it was his own ability to retain his emotional balance in the most difficult situations that exemplified his self-discipline.  His purpose in writing the letter was not to communicate with Meade but to hold himself to the standard he expected of his own leadership.  The Union would fight another day and ultimately win the war.  In the meantime, he set a new and greater standard.

Failing to act while serving in leadership positions can paralyze an organization.  Acting upon misinformation or before the situation ripens might have even more disastrous effects.  As leaders, we need to be exceptionally aware of making good decisions – taking the right action at the right time – and to refrain from the wrong actions when restraint is needed.  Sometimes the best thing a leader can do is nothing.  Learning the difference will best serve your team.

*The viewpoints contained in the article are that of the Author’s. They are not representative of the Department of Defense or the U.S. Marine Corp.

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