by Robert Evans Wilson, Jr.
On June 29, 1863, a 23-year-old first lieutenant received an unexpected promotion. The freckle-faced, strawberry blonde, who graduated at the bottom of his class at West Point Military Academy, was elevated directly to the rank of brigadier general in the Union Army. He completely skipped over the traditional ranks in between: captain, major and colonel. As you can imagine, such a promotion was met with skepticism, dismay and envy by his former peers and superiors—especially at a time when the South was winning against the North during the American Civil War.
Maj. Gen. Alfred Pleasonton, who promoted the boy, saw his gamble put to the test just four days later in the Battle of Gettysburg. The young general was put in charge of the Michigan Cavalry and tasked with keeping Confederate Gen. Jeb Stuart from attacking the Union Army’s rear.
Was he up to the task? Could he keep that dubious star on his shoulder that so many wanted removed? Motivated by the desire to prove himself, George Armstrong Custer, his gleaming saber outstretched in front of him, led the cavalry charge and held the Union line. His successful leadership served as a crucial contribution to the battle that was the turning point in the North winning the war.
When leadership is thrust upon us, many of us are motivated to rise to the occasion. Sometimes, however, leadership must rise in a vacuum. What motivates us to become leaders when there are none?
A few years ago, five friends and I went white-water rafting for the very first time. We went on the upper Ocoee River in Tennessee where the rapids are rated Class IV. Not exactly the best choice for beginners, but we had a competent guide who gave us plenty of instructions on when and how to paddle. He was so good that we were the only rafters in a group of 10 rafts that did not capsize and get soaked.
Halfway through our trip, we went over a small waterfall. When our rubber raft hit the bottom, it bent in the middle and folded up like a book. When it sprung back apart, our guide was catapulted from the boat and landed several feet behind us. As our leaderless raft sped forward, getting further and further away from our guide, five of us thought, “Uh, oh, what are we going to do!” Before we could panic, my friend Bill started barking commands, “Left side, four strokes! Right side, two strokes!” With great relief, we followed his orders and within minutes he had us safely out of the rushing white water and into the calmer water by the river bank where our guide was able to catch up to us.
A leadership role can jump-start motivation. When you have the responsibility of guiding others, it forces you to guide yourself first. I have found volunteering for leadership roles at work and for nonprofit organizations to be self-motivating. Back in the early 1990s, I had a particularly bad year. My mother passed away, a business venture failed and I had a falling out with my best friend. Needless to say, I was in a funk, and I seriously needed something to move me out it. That’s when I learned my community association needed a new president. It was a huge job with a two-year commitment that required fundraising, event planning, managing several committees and supervising dozens of volunteers. It consumed tons of my time, but it also taught me I could do more in a day than I ever knew. During that same two-year period, I launched two new businesses, both of which became success stories.
As a manager, you can motivate your employees (or your volunteers) by giving them a mantle of leadership. Suddenly, he or she will no longer be just another disaffected cog in the wheel. With a position of responsibility, those people will be empowered to do more and be more. Sure, it may require a greater effort on your part, but you will challenge their minds, expand their abilities and imbue them with a sense of accomplishment.
Robert Evans Wilson, Jr. is a motivational speaker and humorist. He works with companies that want to be more competitive and with people who want to think like innovators. For more information on Wilson’s programs, visit www.jumpstartyourmeeting.com.