In his book, It Worked for Me, Colin Powell relates a story told of President Abraham Lincoln during the American Civil War. To keep his finger on the pulse of the war, Lincoln would frequently sit in the telegraph office and monitor the latest reports coming in from the battlefields. Often the news was not good, especially in the early years of the war.
One night a report came though of yet another disaster: Confederate Cavalry had surprised a Union encampment near Manassas, Virginia. They had captured a brigadier general and one hundred horses. Lincoln slumped in his chair, and then said something surprising: “Sure hate to lose those one hundred horses.”
The telegraph operator was surprised at this reaction and asked, “Mr. President, what about the brigadier general?”
Lincoln replied with a line worth remembering:
So often the focus of our thoughts is at the top of the pyramid – what the leader is doing, saying, thinking. But Lincoln showed in that moment the importance of keeping our eyes on what matters most. In his case, horses were important. Without horses, he could not win the war.
Powell says that he framed and hung Lincoln’s quote in his office the day he was promoted to brigadier general himself, as a reminder. We as leaders, even generals, are not indispensable. The best way to secure our own positions may be to be good caretakers of those things that are.
Most of us don’t rely on horses any more, but we may have workhorses on our teams. The good ones are hard to come by. The focus of the leader should be on the horses – seeing that they are well taken care of, helping them perform their best, and all pulling in the same direction when it’s time to pull.
The better we do that, the safer we’ll all be from the rebels.