Rally Around the Flag

April marked the 149th anniversary of the end of the Civil War. While far before my time, it is an important part of American history to me and one of my favorite subjects. Having extensively studied and read about the Civil War, I have learned many valuable lessons about government, politics, war, soldiers, courage, enduring hardship, sacrifice, patriotism and leadership. However, I had always assumed that the Civil War had little to teach us about business and especially about teams. I was wrong. This became clear to me in a recent conversation about building engaged and committed teams.

While I would never equate the trials of war with the challenges of business, it struck me that there is a powerful lesson to be learned from color bearers of the Union and Confederate regiments during the Civil War. Unless you are an avid Civil War student like me, you may not know about the regimental color bearers, but being a color bearer was considered a mark of great distinction and required extraordinary bravery. Their sole job was to carry the flag where the regimental officers directed, unarmed and always under fire. Most importantly, color bearers had to face the enemy, never break and never run, or the entire regiment might follow. In other words, color bearers were counted on to hold firm no matter what the circumstances, dangers or challenges.

The devotion to the regimental flag was unwavering, and men would literally sacrifice their lives to defend a flag and protect it from capture. In fact, the life expectancy of a flag bearer in battle was often just a few minutes since the opposition knew that if the flag fell the troops would  likely be demoralized. The flag was a rallying point for the regiment, and the unit knew that they were still in the fight as long as they could see the flag waving. This was the basis for the Civil War song lyric, “rally ‘round the flag boys.”

So dedicated were the soldiers to protecting the flag and keeping it flying that when one flag bearer was killed or wounded, another man dropped his rifle, picked up the flag and kept it flying. According to one story, eight different men of the 69th New York Volunteer Infantry (from the legendary Irish Brigade) were either wounded or killed carrying the regimental flag during the charge on the Sunken Road at Antietam in September, 1862. The regimental flags were so prized that one Union solder was awarded the Medal of Honor for grabbing a Confederate regimental flag from another soldier during a battle.

You may be wondering what all of this Civil War history has to do with business and teams … or perhaps you already figured it out. The team lessons from the color bearers are these:

  1. Having a cause, mission or purpose that your team members will rally behind, support each other in and do whatever it takes to achieve;
  2. Having a team where the members have each other’s back to such a degree that they will sacrifice themselves (if necessary) in order to allow the team to win; and
  3. Having team members that will pick up another team member’s role in order to ensure that the team succeeds.

Yes, the soldiers during the Civil War were fighting for something about which they had great personal passion – patriotism, defending their country or land, defending their way of life, etc.   However, many Civil War soldiers were not highly committed to national or even regional causes. Rather, they were completely committed to their units and the other men in those units. This is precisely the type of loyalty and camaraderie that great organizations create and nurture.

Consider how your organization measures up against the Civil War color bearers:

  • What is your organization’s rallying point (e.g. mission, purpose, cause, objectives, or plan)?
  • Has your organization painted a clear picture of the mission, purpose and plan so that every team member can visualize it, imagine it and rally behind it?
  • Are your team members engaged, committed and inspired so that they will do whatever it takes to carry out and support each other in achieving the mission, objectives and plan?
  • Are your team members empowered and encouraged to have each other’s back, to make sure that every team member feels supported as part of a team that is doing something that matters?
  • Are your team members fully committed to the organizational mission and plan so that they are focused on the win for the organization and team rather than their personal success or accolades?

If your answer to any of these questions is “no,” then now is your time and this is your opportunity.

Leadership of any organization or team exists to develop, nurture and maintain all of the foregoing points. So often I hear management personnel say that their people do not care about vision, mission and purpose – they just want to make sure they get their day-to-day jobs done and do them well. I do not buy it. If people only care about getting their jobs done, then either they do not have something to rally behind or they are the wrong people.

If you have the wrong people, then get the right people. If you do not have something for your people to rally behind, then that is your most important priority. It may not be a flag, but it must be visible and powerful just like the regimental flags in the Civil War. Your mission, vision and purpose may not be a matter of life and death, but it should be so important that your team members are willing to put aside their self-focused concerns in order to support and achieve the team and organizational objectives. That is the essence of great teams, as modeled by the color bearers who willingly sacrificed it all during the Civil War.

Who are the color bearers on your team or in your organization, and have you armed them with a “flag” to wave, to rally behind and to protect at all costs?

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