top of page

Take Command! Leadership Lessons from the Civil War

Tom Wheeler, published by Doubleday, USA, (Re-titled paperback edition, June 2001).

Review by: Steven Foulston

Tom Wheeler takes Tom Stoppard's observation that 'war is the continuation of capitalism with the gloves off' as his starting point for this well written treatise. The author maintains that the basic principles of leadership can be described by reference both to generalship during the civil war and the strategies pursued by some of the key business decision-makers of corporate America during the last quarter of the twentieth century.


 American Civil War Round Table UK / Book Review / Take Command Leadership lessons from the civil war

former president of the National Cable Television Association, Wheeler has been closely involved with some of the major telecommunications developments over the last 20 years. He draws on this experience to enunciate nine basic principles of leadership:

Dare to Fail.

If at First You Don't Succeed... So What?

Yesterday's Tactics Make Today's Defeats.

It's the Next Hill.

A Bold Response Can Trump a Perfect Plan.

Information Is Only Critical If It Is Used Properly.

Small Skirmishes Decide Great Battles.

To Be a Leader, You Must Lead.

If You Can't Win... Change the Rules.

To explain each of these principles in turn Wheeler gives a narrative in the first half of each chapter of sonic of the landmark Civil War battles and campaigns, focusing on the nature of the command decisions made. In the second half of these chapters he then draws parallels with management decision making on more recent corporate battlefields. He compares for instance McDowell's failure at First Bull Run with the Disney Corporation's ill-fated attempt in the early 1990's to gain permission to develop a civil war theme park there, what Wheeler calls the Third Battle of Bull Run. Though at first successful, Disney's Eisner failed, like McDowell, to see the formidable opposition lining up against him, in Eisner's case such personalities as James McPherson and Shelby Foote. Their argument that such a park would be nothing short of historical vandalism and a sacrilege to those that died there cost the Disney Corporation die battle, the project eventually being abandoned.

Running at just over 200 pages the book is fairly sparse on detail - I read it cover to cover in one sitting - and the historical narrative gives us nothing new. Thorough reading of a reasonable introductory text to the Civil War should provide the basic narrative details. However, what does make this work so well worth reading is Wheeler's clear and concise analysis and description of these nine leadership lessons quoted above, and their reference to modern concepts of management. For these reasons I cannot recommend this book too highly. I do feel however, that there are a number of elements missing that should have been corrected, in order to develop his overall thesis. Nathan Bedford Forrest for instance is never mentioned, a man who, it could be argued, did more to revolutionise tactics than Mosby, Sheridan or Stuart.

Perhaps Wheeler did not wish to upset his more politically correct readers by including him in the discussions. Then too, many working in the public or private sectors frequently suffer underfunding and inadequate resources. As a consequence their leadership and strategic options are therefore somewhat limited. How many of today's managers can emulate McClellan "sitting in the mud and screaming until he was given another 100,000 men"?

As for Grant, who nowadays could afford to literally fritter away such large numbers of men and so much material as the great General did in his all out push for victory in 1864? Unlike Lee however, Grant knew that he could more easily replace his losses. Most organisations today in fact confront situations similar to those faced by Lee rather than by Grant.

A final criticism I would make is that Wheeler does not focus sufficiently on the general management of an army or a business enterprise. McClellan had his faults, but he also had some virtues, his major achievement being the creation of the Army of the Potomac, something not properly credited in the book. It was McClellan's managerial expertise that turned a minuscule pre-war regular army into the 150,000 troop standing army that it eventually became, all this from a collection of "mudsills and mechanics". Unfortunately for McClellan, having created his army, he then failed to use it strategically, a lesson that he never learnt.

Note: 'Leadership lessons from the civil war' is an interactive book. Through website readers are invited to share their thoughts on the Civil War and their experiences and insights into the nature of leadership. Check out the site for more information


Commenting has been turned off.
bottom of page