Leadership Communication & The Art of War

July 1, 1963. Gettysburg. The height of the Civil War. Confederate troops gather in the valley near Culp’s Hill under the direction of newly-promoted Lieutenant General Richard Ewell who replaced Lee’s favorite command-proven leader General “Stonewall” Jackson. Union troops dot the top of Culp’s Hill. Both sides hungry for rest, weary from long days of marching and fighting.

General Robert E. Lee, the Confederates’ greatest military leader, sees the strategic advantage of pressing forward and taking Culp’s Hill from the ragtag Union troops holding the crest. To expedite a Confederate victory,  Lee sent Lt. General Ewell an urgent, brief message:

Take the hill if practicable.

Which means what exactly?

You’re Not As Clear As You Think You Are

“If practicable?”

Ewell interpreted Lee’s message like this: “Take the hill if you want to, if it’s convenient.”

Which was not at all what Lee meant. Lee meant, “Take the hill, or die trying!”

As a genteel, Southern gentleman, Lee chose to communicate to Ewell using his trademark understated, soft fashion, the same way he effectively communicated with the now-deceased Jackson, who was also a genteel, Southern gentleman.

Ewell’s failure to execute what he interpreted as Lee’s allowance for Ewell to make the call for himself cost the Confederate army Culp’s Hill, the Battle of Gettysburg, and eventually, the war.

The Art of Being Clear

Sun Tzu wrote in The Art of War: “If words of command are not clear and distinct, if orders are not thoroughly understood, the general is to blame.”

Likewise, when leaders communicate but their employees don’t understand clearly the expectations, the leader is to blame.

Here are three tips to avoiding that trap:

1. Apply the Half-Listening Rule.

The other day I asked my wife if we had any ice cream. As if my magic, my 7-year old daughter Sierra popped her head around the corner and asked, “Ice cream?”

That’s what I call the Half-Listening Rule: when someone who is only half-listening can understand your expectations and change their behavior. That means you speak in a clear, concise, listener-friendly manner, void of rabbit trails, tirades, other needless communication fillers.

2. Request confirmation.

Years ago I instructed my new assistant over the phone to book my round-trip travel between Chicago to Tulsa which included hotel, rental car, etc. When I got to the rental car counter, I learned that they didn’t have my reservation. I promptly whipped out the travel sheet my assistant made me and pointed to the confirmation number.

Which is when I learned that the rental car that my assistant booked for me was waiting for me back in Chicago…where I lived…in a parking lot very close to where my own car was parked. But as far as a rental car in Tulsa? I’d have to find another option.

This was MY fault. Of course, that’s not what I told my assistant! But in truth, I could have avoided this had I confirmed with my new assistant (emphasis on NEW, an employee with an untested, unproven track-record) to tell me what she heard me say, just to make sure that she picked up what I was laying down.

 3. Know your listener.

When I worked in a group home with delinquents , I asked a new boy to take his bath and get ready for bed. But that’s not what I said. I said, “Brian, what do you think about taking your shower and getting ready for bed?”–which is the same sort of problem that General Lee had with his vague “if practicable” message. Come bed time, Brian had not taken his shower, nor had he gotten ready for bed.

When I asked him what happened, he said, “Oh. I thought you wanted me to think about it. And I wasn’t ready when you asked me.”

After clarifying what I meant by what I said, I explained that I was offering him a soft instruction, but an instruction nonetheless. I continued that in the future, I didn’t wish to have to “bark orders” to have my words heard. But now knowing that Brian would interpret words in a way most favorable to doing what he wanted to do, I asked for confirmation, too. Once he showed me that he understood me, I would say with a smile, “See? I didn’t have to say, ‘Get your skinny, lazy butt in the shower now Now NOW!’ You still got the gist.”  


I quoted from The Art of War earlier. Now let me start Sun Tzu’s words again, but this time let me show you his entire thought: “If words of command are not clear and distinct, if orders are not thoroughly understood, the general is to blame. But if his orders are clear, and the soldiers nevertheless disobey, then it is the fault of their officers.”

Leaders, it’s not right to punish an employee if the fault lies with you. But if you’ve done your part to be clear–and you know the fault does not lie with you–it’s time to cut your losses and recruit a new soldier.


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