Don’t Let the Past Limit Today’s Options


Failed military battles produce some of our best leadership lessons. In hindsight it becomes clear whether it was simply a lack of resources, a flawed strategy, a superior enemy or a series of unforced leadership errors.  Errors like a lack of preparation or poor decision making and communication can often be traced back to pride, overconfidence and fear.  Usually these errors are not the result of a single mistake in thinking or action, but a series of cascading miscalculations and leadership behaviors.


In David McCullough’s book, Pioneers,about the settling of the Ohio Valley after the American Revolutionary War, he chronicles a military disaster known as St. Clair’s Defeat.  The battle was fought against a collection of Native tribes and resulted in more deaths and casualties than any battle fought in the Revolutionary War. 


The defeat’s namesake General Arthur St. Clair had not been dealt a favorable hand in terms of recruits, resources, the weather, and having to fight an enemy on their turf. However, he seemed to inexplicably ignore advice and common sense and chose to march into a battle without any advantages.   No less than President George Washington had told him, “Beware of surprise! You know how the Indians fight us.”  


St. Clair who was also Governor of the Territory was probably not most people’s first choice to lead the military effort, but he did have experience. Although perhaps that was part of the problem. He had risen quickly up the ranks during the Revolutionary War and worked closely with then General George Washington.  However, his military service in the war would be forever linked to a decision he made to evacuate Fort Ticonderoga.  Most felt the Fort to be “Impregnable” and believed he had made a poor choice to evacuate. The resulting court martial trial exonerated him, but he was given minor duties the rest of the war.


Initial planning for the battle against the Native Tribes proposed a force of four thousand quality soldiers. St. Clair began the campaign with less than half of that number and they were described as, “badly clothed, badly paid, and badly fed.”  By the time they encountered the enemy they would be a force closer to 1200.


Despite the weather and lack of skilled manpower, St, Clair’s men managed to complete a fort from which they could launch their attack.  Yet everyone realized a diminishing hope of success.  Morale was low, nothing was known about the enemy’s strength and size, and the army’s supply line was stretched too thin. St. Clair was also suffering from a variety of ailments and had to be carried by his soldiers.  He clearly faced a decision point.  He could still manage an orderly retreat and live to fight another day or he could push forward towards a blind risk.  St. Clair chose to advance.


The surprise attack by the Natives initiated a battle that lasted about four hours. The approximately one thousand Natives lost no more than 21 dead and 40 wounded. The U.S. Army losses were 623 dead along with an estimated 200 other men, women and children.


McCullough wonders if part of the motivation to move forward related to St. Clair’s previous decision to abandon Fort Ticonderoga and the criticism he received.  In battling the Natives, St. Clair was dealing with lots of unknowns.  He did not know how well his men would fight since for many this would be their first battle. Surprisingly, he seemed unconcerned about his complete lack of knowledge of the enemy.  It was if he had predetermined his decision to proceed rather than to consider all the warning signs. 


McCullough argues that St. Clair would have been far better to have abandoned the campaign just like he had abandoned Fort Ticonderoga.  Perhaps, the outcome of his first decision regarding Fort Ticonderoga had limited the freedom he felt to make the second decision when the factors were similar.  Experience and its consequences can be a tricky teacher.  St. Clair knew how to read the warning signs and make a decision that others might view as too cautious.  Yet, because of the criticism of that decision, he appears to have taken it off the table when it was by far his best option.  Leaders need to thoughtfully reflect on painful past decisions and ensure the lessons learned help to expand their perspectives and not unfairly limit them.