Imagine your business’s market situation has changed drastically. You are suddenly facing competitors attacking you on all fronts, looking to take over your position. You have no more resources to allocate toward the problem. You can’t go forward, and your people are starting to lose their edge. What do you do?
Believe it or not, in this situation, you would be able to look to the Civil War Battle of Gettysburg to find your answer. On July 1, 1863, General John Buford of the Union Cavalry found himself in this same position. The “competitors,” also known as the Confederate Army, had invaded the North, and Buford was tasked with stopping them. He found them in southern Pennsylvania, near a hamlet called Gettysburg. His nearest reinforcements were 14 miles away in Maryland. He was severely outnumbered, and after a morning of hard fighting, his troops were winding down. Assaulted on three sides, no resources, weary staff. Sound familiar?
Buford did what many of us would be reluctant to do. He stepped back. Instead of rushing forward, throwing resources he couldn’t afford to lose at the problem, or trying to find a work-around that kept him from losing ground, he surveyed the landscape behind him. Make no mistake—this was definitely NOT a retreat. It was a tactical retrograde movement that allowed him to regroup, and most importantly, reconnect with his purpose.
The overall purpose of the Union army was to defeat the Confederacy, but they had enough experience against Robert E. Lee to know that their best tactical advantage would be to take up a strong defensive position and make the South attack them. The purpose was victory, the strategy was battle, and the tactics were defensive battle. For Buford, this meant that the quickest way forward to his purpose was to actually fall back.
Buford had to exercise all the characteristics of purposeful leadership to step back in the heat of battle and reconnect to that purpose. First, he had self-mastery. He did not allow his ego to get in the way of him achieving his purpose. Although it might have been tempting for him to continue on the attack, hoping to defeat the Confederates after a day spent in hard fighting, he checked his impulses and exhibited the kind of self-control that comes with high emotional intelligence. Instead of digging in and continuing to attack, he was able to see a bigger picture, relinquish his need to win the battle so that he could lead his organization to be positioned to win the war.
Second, Buford built a can-do culture. His soldiers were well-seasoned and had come to trust their tough-as-nails commander. Despite being outnumbered by 4 to 1, they were creative, found ways to even the odds, and achieved their objective, which, by the way, was NOT overall victory. They understood that their purpose was to delay the Confederate infantry until the Union infantry arrived, not to score a stunning victory. With a clear purpose, his cavalry troopers had confidence that they could delay the Confederates and achieve their objective.
Finally, Buford was connected with an audacious purpose. While his immediate objective was to delay the Confederates while the Union infantry arrived from 14 miles away, he understood that there was a bigger purpose to his role. The Confederates were in Pennsylvania in a bid to get foreign aid and win the war. Buford’s audacious purpose, like the Union’s, was to save the nation and free the slaves. Recognizing that, he and his men fought with greater vigor and determination.
The next time you’re facing something that seems like overwhelming odds, remember that the best way forward might be to step back—back to where you remember your purpose and can build on that.