Sacred Ground: Leadership Lessons From Gettysburg & The Little Bighorn


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Sacred Ground

They use it every single day. They're the experts The businesses that have been built on this platform are remarkable. Whitman oversaw explosive expansion at eBay. Meg Whitman was honored as Fortune magazine's most powerful woman in business in both and Much of what she accomplished can be attributed to her desire to hear what people were telling her, learn from it, and take appropriate action based on that new knowledge. As a leader, if you arrive at a point where you lose interest in receiving feedback- assuming you had interest in the first place- or you say you want feedback but create an environment that is clearly not safe for providing it, you cannot succeed over the long haul.

Good leaders foster a culture in which it is okay to speak up, even if the message might be painful.

The very best leaders not only accept feedback but actively, even manically, seek it out. They could not function without the information they receive, virtually always from multiple sources. It is like the air they breathe. They use that data to drive change in themselves and their organizations. Meg Whitman is a shining example of just such a leader. She constantly sifted through countless bits of information, especially from her customers, the buyers and sellers who were foundational to eBay's success.

She used what she learned to create one of corporate America's all-time growth stories. As business leaders we often fail to fully appreciate the ability we possess, for both good and ill, to influence people and situations through the simple choice of the words we use. Our teams are listening closely to what we say. The very best communicators select their words carefully and work hard to ensure that followers understand their meaning.

This necessity to speak and write clearly is a truly basic leadership objective, but ever so difficult to consistently execute. Last week I was honored to take a group of executives through a leadership seminar at the Gettysburg battlefield in Pennsylvania. At the end of our day-long tour of that sacred place, one of the participants read Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address near the spot where Lincoln delivered it at the National Cemetery in November As she read that beautiful little speech- only words long- I was reminded of the power of an idea well expressed to move people to think differently and, sometimes, change the world.

Lincoln had less than a year of formal schooling but he read constantly from an early age in an effort to educate himself. He became a master communicator whose innate yet carefully honed abilities as a story-teller and humorist enabled him to reach and teach ordinary people in unforgettable fashion.

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His deep study of the Holy Bible and Shakespeare influenced the lovely cadences of his speeches. Lincoln's masterpiece, the Gettysburg Address, forever changed the way Americans think of themselves. He explained the meaning of the sacrifice of so many lives on the battlefield just a few months prior. He asserted the Declaration of Independence and its central idea- equality- as a matter of founding law.


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The Civil War, Lincoln told us, was the great struggle around and testing of this new principle. As historian Gary Wills said, "By accepting the Gettysburg Address, its concept of a single people dedicated to a proposition, we have been changed. Because of it, we live in a different America. Few people, even among great historical figures, possess Abraham Lincoln's gift for language.

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Of speeches that compare with the Gettysburg Address, for me, only the inspirational words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. So what does that leave for those of us who are mere mortals? For those of us who often get tangled in our own syntax? For those of us who dread having to put our thoughts down on paper?

There is a popular historical myth that Lincoln penned the Gettysburg Address on the back of an envelope as he rode the train from Washington D. To the contrary, the speech was carefully composed beforehand at the White House. He wrote and rewrote, revising the speech even as late as the morning it was to be delivered. Lincoln was incredibly particular in his choice of words, and he worked hard to get the message just right. He knew that his followers, and even future generations, would be paying close attention. In that way, he was a teacher to all of us who would aspire to be leaders who communicate well.

With written communication, take the time to be thoughtful. Who is your intended audience? What message do you want to convey? How can you write that piece- whether a short e-mail or a full-blown speech- in the simplest, most concise way, yet still get your point across remember Lincoln's words? Nothing is more frustrating for a team of people than to read something their boss or colleague has produced that causes confusion. Credibility is lost and time is wasted.

Proofread what you write. Better yet, have someone that you trust check your work. Be open to suggestions and make changes accordingly. Like Lincoln did, practice your writing. As with any other skill, writing ability can be developed over time with effort, repetition and feedback. The spoken word can prove more difficult because we frequently don't have time to be as reflective as we might with a writing assignment.

We are often called upon to give an opinion quickly without the benefit of all the information we need to make a judgment. Still, the best communicators are thoughtful in speech as well. Take a pause before you speak. Collect your thoughts. Consider the audience. It's okay to acknowledge what you don't know and take time to do some research. Gather data. Ask good questions.

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Select your words. Deliver them well. Confirm understanding. As always, the old saying holds true: "Talk is cheap, but whisky costs money. With that said, leadership begins with words. Especially in the difficult economic environment in which we all live and work, anxious business teams are keenly in tune with what leadership is saying. So take the opportunity to be thoughtful with your words.

The future of your organization may depend on it. Great teams never give up. In business, as in sports or any other human endeavor, the very best teams simply refuse to be defeated. I was reminded of this fact several years ago when I had the honor to coach my daughter Lucia and her 3rd and 4th grade peers in basketball.

Basketball, like business, is a fast-paced, rough and tumble game that involves lots of strategy and, in order to win, requires high skill and determination from its participants. At least at the highest levels of the sport, this is true. I tried to teach basic fundamentals, with a focus on teamwork.

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They took a vote and decided to call themselves the "Hot Peppers. Did I mention the laughter? This was a middling team, at best. During the regular season we might have won a couple more games than we lost. But in the annual year-end tournament that determines the overall league champion, something came over the Peppers.

They pulled together as a unit and demonstrated, almost heroically, that great teams never give up. There was a team that had dominated the schedule all year long. This team had several girls who were big, strong and skilled.


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This team had gone undefeated in the regular season. Somehow the Peppers got through the preliminary rounds to face this team in the championship game.

Sacred Ground: Leadership Lessons From Gettysburg & The Little Bighorn Sacred Ground: Leadership Lessons From Gettysburg & The Little Bighorn
Sacred Ground: Leadership Lessons From Gettysburg & The Little Bighorn Sacred Ground: Leadership Lessons From Gettysburg & The Little Bighorn
Sacred Ground: Leadership Lessons From Gettysburg & The Little Bighorn Sacred Ground: Leadership Lessons From Gettysburg & The Little Bighorn
Sacred Ground: Leadership Lessons From Gettysburg & The Little Bighorn Sacred Ground: Leadership Lessons From Gettysburg & The Little Bighorn
Sacred Ground: Leadership Lessons From Gettysburg & The Little Bighorn Sacred Ground: Leadership Lessons From Gettysburg & The Little Bighorn
Sacred Ground: Leadership Lessons From Gettysburg & The Little Bighorn Sacred Ground: Leadership Lessons From Gettysburg & The Little Bighorn
Sacred Ground: Leadership Lessons From Gettysburg & The Little Bighorn Sacred Ground: Leadership Lessons From Gettysburg & The Little Bighorn
Sacred Ground: Leadership Lessons From Gettysburg & The Little Bighorn Sacred Ground: Leadership Lessons From Gettysburg & The Little Bighorn

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