Your place in history

I stood in the rain on the battlefields at Gettysburg this week, thinking about leadership. We talked about the leaders of the Union and Confederate armies, their strengths and failings, the decisions they made and their outcomes. The complex chain of events, and how even small actions and decisions impacted the final outcome, really brought home to me that we all take our spot in the arc of time, reaching both back and forward into the future. What will be your imprint on history?

What stood out to me most, as you might expect, was that these leaders in the past were leading people in war. Their decisions had life and death implications. The people who fought did so despite knowing that the likelihood was high that they would die. They went into battle, stepping over their fallen friends, many never making it home, or losing parts of themselves in the process. And then they did it again. Some did this for the vision of American they believed in, some for entirely varied personal reasons. The leaders’ ability to keep these reasons compelling despite the constant companions of fear, discomfort, and doubt is absolutely remarkable. Lee’s charismatic figure still captures imaginations today. Chamberlain’s emotional depth and compelling rhetoric moved hearts already turned away from the task. Are you a leader people trust to follow into the fray?

The stakes aren’t as high for most of us today. We aren’t most of us making decisions that can result in sudden and catastrophic loss of life for the people we lead, or have far-reaching implications for the state of the world we live in. But it’s not no-stakes. And I wonder if leaders today fully appreciate the responsibility they bear. While your employees may not be putting their lives in your hands, they are placing their livelihoods in your care. Your responsibility for them, however, goes beyond the shared success or failure of the business. Your style of leadership influences how people feel day to day – whether they find value and meaning in their work, or whether they feel effective or disenfranchised, and down to what kind of mood they go home in at the end of the day. Does all of this matter to the bottom line? Of course. I think we all understand now that the most effective employees are those who feel engaged, satisfied, and empowered – and that these employees are an important differentiator for business performance. But that is not the only reason to strive to be the best leader you can be. What are your reasons?

Standing on Little Round Top and the Gettysburg Cemetery reminds us that as time passes, often what remains is the impact we made on people. As a leader, people are always watching you. This is what confers leaders their power, but also the responsibility to bear that power well.



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