Leadership lessons can be learned through a variety of vehicles

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Robert Sluga
  • 341st Operations Group deputy commander
Are you shy or unsure about your leadership abilities? Do you feel uneasy when your supervisor asks you step up or the wing commander tells a crowd of people that every Airman is a leader? You might be asking yourself, "How do I do that?" While we can learn about leadership through a variety of vehicles, I think it starts with study and practice.

To see what I mean read about Lt. Col. J. Lawrence Chamberlain in Michael Shaara's "The Killer Angels." Colonel Chamberlain was a professor of rhetoric at Bowdoin University before he joined the Union Army and eventually ended up at the battle of Gettysburg. He was commissioned in the 20th Regiment of Infantry, Maine Volunteers and he was all of 34 years old when the battle started. He was at the battle of Fredericksburg when nearly half of his regiment was lost. A week before the battle of Gettysburg, Colonel Chamberlain was given command of the regiment.

There were many crucial moments in the three-day battle at Gettysburg, but none more so than the defense of Little Round Top. Col. Strong Vincent, who commanded the 3rd Brigade of the 1st Division, V Corps gave these last words to the 389 men of the 20th Maine, "This is the left end of the Union line. You understand? You are to hold this ground at all costs!"

Late in the day, after brave action on both sides, the regiment had fired more than 15,000 rounds, and many men were running out of ammunition. Of the 358 riflemen they started with, now only 228 remained effective. The enemy was massing for another charge, one that would certainly overwhelm their left wing. For Colonel Chamberlain, there was only one thing left -- a counterattack. He gave the order, "Fix bayonets!" In an instant, Lt. Holman S. Melcher, drawing his sword and yelling his battle cry, led the charge down the hill. After a shocked moment and with a haunting battle cry of their own, the remaining regiment followed Lieutenant Melcher and charged down the hill.

Colonel Chamberlain's men charged forward in a "right wheel" movement. Chamberlain described the charge as having the effect of "a reaper cutting down the disconcerted foe." Stunned, the Confederate troops in the front ranks dropped their rifles and surrendered. The rest broke and retreated toward a stone wall in their rear.

On Thursday, July 2, 1863, Gettysburg's Little Round Top was the site of one of the war's bloodiest struggles. At the bottom of Little Round Top there is a small, barely visible stream called Plum Run that runs through a depression christened the Valley of Death for the many bodies that fell that day. Late in the afternoon, Plum Run ran red from the dead of both sides. A grateful Congress bestowed Colonel Chamberlain with the Medal of Honor in 1893, exactly 30 years after his quick thinking and gallant action saved Little Round Top and the Union.

We are rarely given the chance for split-second decisions with this type of critical outcome at stake. But what can we learn from the story of Colonel Chamberlain and the battle of Little Round Top? If you read "The Killer Angels" you'll learn that Colonel Chamberlain first and foremost took care of his men. They believed he had their best interest at heart and they knew he would work himself to death for them. He had a quick mind and was well educated. When he spoke, people listened, but he never knew why. He was confident and honest.

How does this apply to you or to me?

Whether you lead one Airman or 500, you can find a role-model leader. Some might be historic figures like Colonel Chamberlain or it might be the technical sergeant that leads your shop. When you start to look, you'll find that great leaders of any rank use some combinations of the following tenants: honesty, caring, education, training and they practice.

I truly believe great leaders are made, not born but they bring with them a real concern for their fellow man and willingness to fight for what they believe in.

Are you ready to be a leader? You'll never know unless you try.