Tom Wheeler
Tom Wheeler
Leadership Lessons from the Civil War
ISBN: 0385495188
Leadership Lessons from the Civil War
Business veteran Wheeler profiles nine specific leadership lessons and illustrates them with in-depth stories of battlefield decisions and their results.
—from the publisher's website
TRANSCRIPT
Leadership Lessons from the Civil War
Program Air Date: December 26, 1999

BRIAN LAMB, HOST: Tom Wheeler, author of "Leadership Lessons From the Civil War," what's this book about?
TOM WHEELER (Author, "Leadership Lessons From the Civil War"): The book is about the verities of leadership and the commonalities between what happened in the Civil War on the battlefields, and how the lessons that were demonstrated at that point in time are true today.
LAMB: Why'd you write it?
WHEELER: I wrote it because I have been a student of the Civil War ever since I was a small boy, and in the last 25 years, I've been fortunate enough to be involved in my professional life in various roles in--in some of the new technologies that were changing the face of America, and to work with, in that period, a series of individuals, men like Ted Turner, Craig McCaw, who helped build the national wireless network, Bill McGowan, the father of MCI who helped break up AT&T, Jim Barksdale, the CEO of--of Netscape, and I--and I saw great similarities as I worked with them on a daily basis between their leadership habits and the habits that I was reading about--or the leadership tendencies that I was reading about as I was studying the Civil War.

And so it began to creep into me, and--and I began peppering my conversation with, `Well, you know, this reminds me of,' and--and my staff started getting all bored with--with this, and finally, a great friend and--and colleague, Ron Nessen, turns to me and says, `If you're gonna talk about it so much, why don't you write a book?' And that was the impetus for the whole idea.

LAMB: What's your full-time occupation?
WHEELER: I'm the president of the Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association here in Washington.
LAMB: Who is Colonel Raleigh M. Edgar?
WHEELER: He was my grandfather, a great man. He...
LAMB: You lead off in the acknowledgements talking about him. What did he have to do with all this?
WHEELER: My grandfather taught me to love history, and before I could drive, he had walked me around almost all of the major battlefields of the eastern theater of the Civil War and made them come to life before my eyes. And--and so when he then led me to books, those books were something that were already alive in my mind, and--and he inculcated in me the love of history.
LAMB: What year was that?
WHEELER: Well, let's see. When was I doing this? We probab--this was probably in the--in the late '50s that--that we really started tromping the battlefields together, and it was an amazing--I mean, he'd say, `Now over here, this is what was going on,' and he'd--he'd paint the whole picture, and suddenly the landscape came alive.
LAMB: What battlefields have you personally gone to?
WHEELER: Oh, I've gone to virtually every battlefield in the eastern theater. I have been less arduous in the--in the western theater, but one of the beauties of living in the Washington, DC, area is that everything's an hour and a half or two hours away, and--and you can ask--Carol, my wife, even on our first anniversary, she spent it walking around the battlefield at Antietam, and we made it to our second anniversary.
LAMB: Now if you had to pick a battlefield that was the best one to go to in this area that you've been to, which one would that be, and why?
WHEELER: I think Gettysburg. Gettysburg was the--the largest battle that ever occurred in North America. It lasted for three days, and--and it's pretty clear what went on there. You can visualize it in your mind's eye. I also love Gettysburg because Gettysburg, which is--all through the book are examples from Gettysburg--Gettysburg encapsulates so many different stories that I think are really significant in telling the lesson about what was going on and telling the lesson about how these men were acting as leaders.
LAMB: What's the story of the Minnesotans?
WHEELER: The First Minnesota Regiment, 262 men in the middle of the line on--on the--the second day of the battle of Gettysburg--June 2nd--July 2nd, 1863, and there was, in essence, a hole in the line, and the commanding general saw that there was a division of Confederates advancing against that hole, and he turned and looked, and said, `Who's--who can I put in there?' And there stood the 262 men of the First Virgi--or the First Minnesota Regiment, and he turned to their commander and he says, `Colonel, you see that flag?' and he pointed at the rebel flag coming up, he says, `Take that flag.' And without hesitation, these men charged down the hill in a bayonet charge, taking incredible losses. All that Hancock, who was the general, was looking for was five minutes. He bought them 15 minutes, and that 15 minutes allowed other Union troops to come and plug the hole, but in the process, these men sacrificed mightily--87 percent of them were killed or wounded.

You talk about the battlefield at Gettysburg. I was--I was on the battlefield a few months ago and followed the course of the First Minnesota down off of Cemetery Ridge, down to Plum Run, trying to think about, what must it be like to be charging into this hail of lead coming at you, to charging into a much larger force, and to keep on going, and then to get down there into Plum Run, hiding behind rocks, trying to defend yourself, where they encircle you? These were special men, and--and what fascinated me as I did the work on the book was that--the leadership that all of these men exhibited, that they were--they were common men called to very uncommon circumstances, and they rose to it, and what's the message that that sends us today?

LAMB: You say somewhere in your book there were 1,000 generals in the Civil War.
WHEELER: One of the things that makes the leadership lessons of the Civil War so real to us today, I think, is that these were not professional soldiers, for the most part. At the beginning of the Civil War, the United States Army consisted of 15,000 men, most of whom were out fighting Indians, and four generals. At the end of the war, four years later, 1,000 men had worn generals' stars, and--and you go down and you look at some of the--even the great names. Ulysses Grant was a tannery clerk before the war. William Tecumseh Sherman was the president of the St. Louis Streetcar Company. Stonewall Jackson was a professor. Even Robert E. Lee, who was in the Army, the US Army, at the start of the war, had never commanded men on such a scale.

So this was the last war fought by ordinary people, common people, people like you and me, who were placed into these kinds of situations and had to use their own best judgment, had to make their own leadership decisions, and I think that's one of the most exciting things about the study of the war, and I think it's one of the things that we, today, can--can--can take the most solace in or learn from, because they were just like us. They--they weren't supermen, they were--they were men who were placed in challenging circumstances.

LAMB: What book is this for you?
WHEELER: Book number one.
LAMB: Now you know, 'cause you even cite it in your book, that there have been lots of books written about the Civil War.
WHEELER: Yeah. They say that there are more books written about the Civil War than any other topic except religion.
LAMB: Doubleday's your publisher.
WHEELER: Yes, sir.
LAMB: Why did they buy a book like this from someone who's never written a book before?
WHEELER: Boy, that's a good question. I--I hope that--that they saw in here a unique approach. I mean, I don't think that there are any other books in the market that relate the leadership lessons of the war to the kinds of things that happen today.

See, my thesis is that--that today we are living through a period of change, great change, and the uncertainty that accompanies that change, and that we get all hung up in that--`Oh, my goodness, things are changing so much.' But the change that we're dealing with pales in comparison to the change that people were experiencing at the time of the Civil War--the Civil War itself was brought about by change--and--and that the lessons from that period of change are very fungible today.

You know, N--N--Napoleon used to admonish his lieutenants to study the campaigns of the past, to internalize them, to make them part of their being, so that when they had to make decisions, that they could draw upon the experience of those who had preceded them, and help shape their decision by a knowledge of what had gone on before. And I think--and what the whole premise of this book is, is that there are parallels in decision-making today that you can see on the battlefield of the Civil War. And as a matter of fact, if you look at them on the battlefield of the Civil War, they're sometimes easier to see than today, because as awful as war is--and--and I try and make it clear in the introduction in particular that we're not celebrating war here--as awful as war is, it has several components that--that make it useful to study. It occurs in a truncated period of time--the battle is--is--is fought and then over. There are clear-cut winners and losers. It is a very public activity. And we have the great hindsight of looking at it from 140 years ba--forward, and--and having 20/20 hindsight. And--and so we can look at that and say, `What did happen? How can I learn from that today?'

LAMB: Just some, you know, Civil War 101. When was it fought?
WHEELER: 1861 to 1865.
LAMB: You call it the Civil War, the last guest here talking about the Civil War called it the War Between the States.
WHEELER: I know he did, and I listened to that interview, and I think I disagree with him strongly. He was--he was trying to position this as a sectional war. I don't think that this was a--a sectional war. I think that this was a war within a country. We were a country, we had different ideas in different parts of the country, but what was going on was a fight for the soul of the country.

The Civil War did two things: It defined us as the nation that we are today--Ken Burns calls it our Iliad--and it also made manifest the inalienable rights that our Founding Fathers stood for and said that this country should stand for. And I think that it is a disservice to the men who served on both sides to characterize this as something less than it was. It was the fight for the soul of a nation, and the outcome of that fight helped shape the future of the world.

LAMB: How many soldiers were there on the Union side, how many on the Confederate side?
WHEELER: Oh, gee, total through the course of the war, hundreds of thousands. I mean, it--you would see it at--at Gettysburg, a couple hundred thousand total, but...
LAMB: You--in the book, though, you keep pointing out that the South had less...
WHEELER: The South had--had fewer, yes.
LAMB: ...almost always.
WHEELER: Yes. And--and that was one of the things that--one of my--my favorite chapter in the book is the chapter that i--i--is titled If You Can't Win, Change the Rules, and it features my favorite Civil War figure, John Singleton Mosby, the Confederate colonel of cavalry who--who operated as a guerrilla in--in northern Virginia. And--and because of the fact that the Confederacy was continually outnumbered, the Confederacy had to come up with new ways of dealing with that, and so their st--the question became, `How do we have a strategy that keeps men off the front lines? Well, let's put guerrillas behind the Union lines so that they'll tie up thousands of Union soldiers chasing them and keep them off the front lines,' and it was one of the big changes that was--that occurred during the Civil War. I mean, wars had always been fought by fixed lines, encampments and--and this sort of thing, and now, all of a sudden, there was no such thing as a front line, and the Confederacy had--had changed the rules because they couldn't win with the existing rules.
LAMB: You were born in what state, and how long did you live there?
WHEELER: Redlands, California, and I lived there a very brief period of time. I was born while my dad was in the Army during the second World War, and--and then we moved back to Columbus, Ohio, where I grew up.
LAMB: What did your dad do?
WHEELER: My dad was an insurance agent, and you mentioned my grandfather, Ral Edgar. The book is really something that remembers both my grandfather and my father, because while my grandfather gave me this great love of history, my father imbued in--in--in me the love of capitalism, the celebration of business. My father was a great salesman who believed in capitalism and believed in the responsibility of capitalists, and it was those two things coming together are really what's inside the pages of the book. It is--it is history and how the leadership examples of history relate to leadership examples of business today.
LAMB: How did Woody Hayes get in this book?
WHEELER: Woody Hayes was the legendary football coach at Ohio State, and I went to Ohio State University, and--and for a brief period I was in graduate school and was assistant alumni director, and my job was helping to ferry Woody around the state to alumni meetings and things like this. So I got to know Woody Hayes, and I was--I was shaped by two things that he s--I was impressed by two things that he said, that I tried to internalized in my life. One is--is in the book, and that is, he says `You win with people.' It's a really basic concept. The name of the game is people. Are the people that you're looking to good people? Can they reach down inside them and find something? And--and--and I think that the thing that was unique about the--the lessons that I talk about in--in the book is that it's stories of common people who--who reach down into themselves to make a decision, and when they did, the cup came up full because they were the kind of people that Woody was talking about. You win with people.
LAMB: For a moment, I want to switch to the other side of your book. Now it's--I mean, it's really two different stories. You could actually have two different books, I assume.
WHEELER: Right.
LAMB: One's all about the Civil War and one's all about industry.
WHEELER: Right.
LAMB: Jump all the way to the last chapter, Bill McGowan.
WHEELER: Right.
LAMB: What's--he kind of sums it up for you. You call it Putting It All Together. What's his story?
WHEELER: Bill McGowan was the--was the man who made MCI what it is today, and--and I think Bill McGowan would have been a great Civil War general. And as I was writing the book and going through the--the nine lessons that I think we can take out of the Civil War, it suddenly dawned on me as I was looking for modern metaphors that Bill McGowan could put a check by every single one of them. So I told a brief history of how MCI went from a two-way radio relay business in--in Illinois along Route 66 in--in Illinois to--to this company that had the temerity to challenge what was then the phone company, AT&T, and introduce the concept of competition into telecommunications. And--and I was fortunate to be one of the spear carriers in Bill McGowan's army, and have an opportunity to see some of those things up close.
LAMB: How did he do it?
WHEELER: How did he--how did he do what?
LAMB: How did he build MCI?
WHEELER: With--with great audacity and--and daring.
LAMB: You know, let me stop you. You use the word `audacity' a lot in this book.
WHEELER: Right.
LAMB: What's it mean to you?
WHEELER: Taking the bull by the horns, doing the unexpected. I--I think that audacity is a force multiplier. I think that Robert E. Lee was a great example. He was always audacious. He was always on the offensive. I--I--I think it's hard to win if you're sitting back and--and playing defense. You need to make the other person respond to you. Lee was great at that. McGowan was great at that. Can you imagine taking on AT&T? AT&T had more employees than the United States Army had in Europe at the end of the Second World War. It had the largest corporate law department in the country. It had--it had spent the last 60 years helping federal and state governments write the laws to advantage the incumbent. And Bill McGowan had the temerity, the audacity to say, `We're gonna challenge that.'
LAMB: But how did he do it? Go back to the beginning.
WHEELER: He did it by--by--by gradually building a business, by--by seeing that the business was more than a two-way radio business, and saying, `I want to build a business that allows corporations to have private lines to communicate amongst their various facilities, rather than having to buy that time from AT&T.' And--and when that worked, then he started saying, `Well, maybe I should offer this to consumers,' and the next thing you know, he has a very serious consumer product, but he is constantly being thwarted by the telephone company. And so he finally goes to Congress one day and he says, `You've got to break up AT&T.' He files an antitrust suit long before the federal government filed an antitrust suit against AT&T. He wins the lawsuit, largest settlement ever at that point in time, and lo and behold, the federal government, which had been kind of following all of this, in the end ends up following his advice in breaking up AT&T, much along the lines that he first proposed in Congress.
LAMB: What's the story when he went to visit John Debutz? And who is John Debutz?
WHEELER: John Debutz was the chairman of the board of AT&T, and--and they were having par--some continuing struggles with AT&T and--and Debutz kept him waiting outside for about three hours, and then he finally got ushered into Debutz's office, where Debutz was turned in his chair and was on the phone, and McGowan was sat--seated and Debutz kept his back to him and kept talking for another 10 or 15 minutes, just ignoring him, just doing everything he could to say, you know, `You don't count.' And he finally turns around, he hangs up the phone and--and he looks at McGowan and he says, `We eat guys like you every day.' That was the wrong thing to say to a fighter like Bill McGowan. And he says, `Well, you're not gonna eat this guy,' and he gets up and he walks out.
LAMB: Did AT&T really cut his lines?
WHEELER: The--there were explanations at the time that they were accidental experiences, but yes, there were mysterious instances where--where, in the midst of MCI's first advertising campaign--television advertising campaign, for instance, suddenly the lines just went dead and everybody got a recording that said that the lines were no longer in service. After one court decision here on the East Coast, lines were pulled literally in midsentence, so that people were just cut off. So that the message was sent saying, `Do you really want to go with this other outfit? Because it's gonna be high-risk to your business if you go with MCI.'
LAMB: You--you have your--your nine lessons in that chapter. Lesson one is risk.
WHEELER: Right.
LAMB: And you said Bill McGowan, like Lee, was a risk-taker. How often did Robert E. Lee take a risk?
WHEELER: All the time. Robert E. Lee...
LAMB: What was his biggest?
WHEELER: His biggest risk was probably Chancellorsville. In--clearly, it was Chancellorsville. He had a situation where, 1863, the federal troops are on one side of the Rappahannock River, he is on the other, down by Fredericksburg, Virginia, and the troops commanded by General Hooker--the Union troops commanded by General Hooker are about 3-to-1 Lee's size. And Hooker comes up with a really brilliant plan where he flanks--he brings about two-thirds of his force and flanks them around here, and the next thing you know, without Lee knowing it, he's in Lee's rear. He left men here in Fredericksburg, so he's got a vise that he can just squeeze Lee's army with. You would think that what a commanding general would do would be skedaddle, you know, `How fast do I get out of this vise?' Lee left a handful of men to confront the--the guys at Fredericksburg and turned around and marched against Hooker, split his troops. And what you're never supposed to do is split your forces in the face of a superior adversary.

He gets back to fighting Hooker, and what does he do? He splits his forces again. Sends Jackson on a flanking march with about two-thirds of Lee's force--sends them on a flanking march that turns out to be very successful and--and--and proves to be decisive. But then this force that he's left--the small force that he's left down here at Fredericksburg, suddenly the Union starts advancing against that and the other half of the vise comes back. What's Lee do then? He splits this force again and goes back down to deal with them and whips them. And when he whips them, he turns around and splits again to go back. It was the most audacious--au--audacious military leadership--I mean, it was one of the great examples in all of history, I think.

LAMB: I better quickly, for--read the--the other lessons: tenacity, embrace change, vision, audacity, use of information, empowerment, courage of conviction, change the rules. Where did Bill McGowan change the rules?
WHEELER: Everything Bill McGowan did was about changing the rules. The whole engagement was, `I wanted--I want there to be a different set of rules.' He also operated under a set of rule--un--in an environment where he encouraged his people to innovate and say, `Let's change the rules,' which was about 180 degrees opposite of where AT&T was operating, which was a very hidebound, very rigid, very hierarchical corporation where you got rewarded for not changing the rules.
LAMB: You mention in--in lesson number two that Bill McGowan, like Ulysses S. Grant 100 years before, refused to concede defeat. What did you think of Grant?
WHEELER: I think Grant is the greatest figure to come out of the American Civil War and one of the great military leaders of all history.
LAMB: What made him that?
WHEELER: Grant had a tenacity that was unbelievable. Grant--Ulysses Grant, in almost everything that he did, started out failing. In his personal life he--he drank his way out of the Army. He fell out of the wagon and out of the--out of the Army. He failed in the banking business. He failed in the real estate business. He failed as a farmer. He failed in a run for county clerk. And he--before the war he was reduced to being a clerk in his father's tannery.

But he just kept persevering. Virtually every one of his Civil War experiences started with defeat. My favorite is Vicksburg. You know, in 1862 and--and early '63, Vicksburg was probably the most important position in the whole country. It was...

LAMB: Where was it?
WHEELER: Jeffer--it--it's on the Mississippi River. Jefferson Davis called it the nail that holds the halves of the Confederacy together because it's a--it's a town in the state of Mississippi on the Mississippi River. The Union controlled the river north and south of Vicksburg, but they couldn't control the use of the river because of the fact that they couldn't get Vicksburg. Vicksburg was a Gibraltar. It was up on a bluff.

Ships on the river couldn't elevate their guns high enough to get up and get the emplacements. If the--that the emplacements on the bluff could just pummel them. So you couldn't get to Vicksburg from the west from the river. From the north, it was protected by a swamp. And in the east and south, it was the heart of the Confederacy.

Grant tried six times to take Vicksburg and--and--over an 18-month period. And some of them were some pretty strange tries. I mean, twice he issued his men picks and shovels and told them to change the course of the Mississippi River so that it would bypass Vicksburg. I mean, we're going to change the course of the earth, the Mississippi, a mile-wide Mississippi. And--and it didn't work.

So after 18 months and these series of failures, the public, his generals, the politicians were getting pretty restless. And one of his subordinate generals who had a brother in Congress wrote to him that, `I fear disaster before Vicksburg.' He said, `All of--all of Grant's schemes have failed.' There were rumors circulated about his drinking again.

Lincoln sent a spy out to check on Grant. The governor of Illinois wrote to Lincoln and said, `If you expect the Republicans to carry the state of Illinois in the next year's elections,' the '64 elections, `you'll get Grant out from command of Illinois troops.' He had all this pressure on him. And what'd he do? He just kept persevering and he came up with another new audacious, innovative plan.

He actually invented the blitz--blitzkrieg. That--he remembered that in his first failure at Vicksburg, he had been forced to retreat 250 miles back to Memphis without his supplies. His men--his supplies had been captured. His men had to live off the land. And he wrote in his memoirs--he said, `I was kind of surprised at how that was possible.'

So he said, `OK, I'm going to launch out into the heart of the Confederacy without my supply trains to slow me down. I'm going to move fast and make them respond to me.' Even William Tecumseh Sherman, his lieutenant and--and--and--and a great acolyte of his, said, `This--I'm not sure this is going to work,' but Grant says, `We're going to try it.'

He takes off, he went--he went--in 17 days, he went 170 miles, fought five battles, won all of them. And on July 4th, 1863, Vicksburg fell to Ulysses S. Grant on his seventh try. And--and one of the great things about it--one of the great parts of that story is that shortly thereafter, Abraham Lincoln wrote him a letter. And Lincoln said in his letter--he said, `I wasn't too sure when you did this and I kind of wondered when you did that, and then when you went on this last exercise I really questioned. I now want to say to you that you were right and I was wrong.'

Shortly thereafter, Grant was given command of all the Union armies in the western theater. And a few months after that, he was given command of all the Union armies everywhere and became the first man since George Washington to be commissioned as lieutenant general. He came east and had the same story here. Failure, failure, failure but he kept pushing on and ultimately won.

LAMB: You seem to enjoy little asides. See if I got this right. You--you--you told us that Bull Run was a creek, that Shiloh was a church and that General Burnside was where we got the words or the name sideburns.
WHEELER: For sideburns.
LAMB: And it--it--did you do all that on purpose? I mean, were you writing it for people that didn't know anything about it? That--was that fun or did you know you were doing it as you went along?
WHEELER: Well, it's what makes it come alive. You--I mean, have to--you have to be able to envision Ambrose Burnside or take a look at what--what Bull Run was like and the high banks of the creek to understand what was going on.
LAMB: Two hundred thirty-two pages, two--$23.95. How long'd it take you to write this book?
WHEELER: About two years.
LAMB: Where did you do it?
WHEELER: On airplanes and hotel rooms. In the course of my job, I travel a lot and--and an airplane is a time of solitude. The book actually got its start--was--started being written on a trip back from Japan. A long stretch of time on an airplane. And then I end up in strange cities and in empty hotel rooms and rather than watching the movie on TV, I'd sit down and--and work on the book. And then I did a lot of it on--on weekends and holidays, which was when Carol and Nicole and Max made their great contribution to the book because Dad a lot of times wasn't a very good Dad because he was so busy working on the book.

And then I hit on the interesting experience when I was pushing to end the book, get it put together, that was a glorious experience. That--I--I would get up at about 4:00 in the morning--I'd start writing about 4:00 in the morning and then I'd write till, like, about 7. And there is something magical about that time of the day when your mind is--is awake and alive and vibrant. You are alone, the house is quiet and it's just you and these men relating to each other. And it was a magical moment in the whole process.

LAMB: How did you do to keep these men in front of you? I mean, it--books are--you know, artwork or things like that are--or were they just right here in your head?
WHEELER: Lots of books. But--but the--the--the men have been in my head and my heart for a long time. I mean, they--the basic outline of the book was written on a couple of Saturday mornings while I was waiting for my son in his occupational therapy class. And I was sitting out in the car and I would think through these kinds of things and it--it was--it was pretty clear who I wanted to be talking about and what the stories were.
LAMB: If you had a--a dinner party and you--you had about six spots at the table, you and your wife, Carol, and you had six spots for Civil War figures...
WHEELER: Wow.
LAMB: ...which ones would you pick of the--of all the ones you write about?
WHEELER: Grant, Mosby, who after the war became great friends and allies, interestingly enough, despite the fact that--that they were horrific enemies during the course of the war; Sherman, Lee. How could you not want to have Robert E. Lee sitting there? Sheridan--Phil Sheridan, a real innovator. Another one--you know, Grant had a great ability also to identify. I mean, he had his--his two principle lieutenants were William Tecumseh Sherman and Philip Sheridan and--and both of them exhibited the same kind of innovation, tenacity, boldness that--that he did. That would be an exciting book.
LAMB: Well, we still have an empty seat, I think.
WHEELER: We still have an empty seat at the table? The--who else would we put at the table? Well--I mean, let's put Lincoln at the table.
LAMB: All right.
WHEELER: I mean, he's--he's the man that--indicated that--decreed that there'd be that war in the first place.
LAMB: All right, the next night we're going to have another dinner party and there'll be another six chairs besides you and Carol. And there are six historians.
WHEELER: Oh.
LAMB: Six historians that you've leaned on...
WHEELER: Yeah.
LAMB: ...to help you...
WHEELER: Yeah.
LAMB: ...earn this. Who would you put at the table?
WHEELER: Shelby Foote at the head of the table. He--he--he takes history and he makes it become a novel. He makes it flow like a novel. McPherson.
LAMB: Jim McPherson?
WHEELER: Jim--James McPherson--wrote probably the greatest single volume treatise on--on the Civil War, "Battle Cry of Freedom." I--I'd put Michael Shaara, who wrote "Killer Angels"--now deceased. So this really would be an interesting party.
LAMB: All your generals are gone. So...
WHEELER: They're gone, too. The--Bruce Catton, Geoffrey Perret (pronounced par-ray), who've you--Perret (pronounced par-ett)--who you've had--you've had on--on this show, who wrote the great recent book on Grant. Have I filled up the seats?
LAMB: No, but I was going to ask you whether you'd put the greatest military historian of all time at that table, who you say, in the book, was--is John Keegan?
WHEELER: Ah, Keegan. Keegan, absolutely.
LAMB: Why--why would you call him the greatest military historian of all time?
WHEELER: I said--I think I said, `Of our time.'
LAMB: OK, whatever.
WHEELER: Yeah.
LAMB: But why?
WHEELER: Because I think he is. I mean, John Keegan--John Keegan has--oh, has--has a breadth of expertise and--and writing on military history that I think is unequaled. I mean, he is the seminal source on--on the Second World War. He also has written much about--here, he wrote--wrote a wonderful book about fields of battle in the United States. And--and he's covered everything in--in between. I mean, he--he was--he was prescient in Kosovo. He was brilliant in his writing in Kosovo and trying to relate what was going on in Kosovo to military history.
LAMB: OK. We've got another dinner party we've got to have. And this night, six seats at the table--or if you want to scoot another one in, that's fine. Which of your--your current American capitalist leaders would you put at the table that would be the most interesting people? Like, Bill McGowan.
WHEELER: Well, I--I'd put Bill McGowan, Ted Turner, Craig McCaw--let's see, Bill McGowan, Ted Turner, Craig McCaw--Jim Barksdale, Jerry Levin, who fought to make HBO what it is and to change the--the--the print orientation of Time Incorporated into an electronic media. I'm down to five? That's five. And, Brian, this would make you unhappy. I'd put you at the table because I think the--the significant impact that you have had on the media and on the way this town is covered at this point.
LAMB: It--it'd be all right as long as I could interview all of those people. I'd be happy.

What about George Koch, who you mentioned.

WHEELER: Yeah.
LAMB: I know he's none of these.
WHEELER: Yeah.
LAMB: I--he--why did he get--you got--you said--you quoted him in here as saying that, "Successful leaders change the rules."

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WHEELER: Yeah. George Koch--I was really fortunate when I came to Washington to have as a mentor, George Koch, who was the president of the Grocery Manufacturers of America. I came to town about the same time and about the same age as the figures who subsequently ended up in the hot seat in Watergate--you know, the Jonathan Roses and the Jeb Magruders of the world. And--and--and I had as my role model something that they didn't have. I had a man who was principled, who was a straight arrow, who said, `This is the way you do things.'

And I also had a man who demanded excellence as a mentor. And I quote him in the book because he had a great phrase that--that you would hear from him all the time. He says, "Doing things the way we did them last year is just an excuse for not thinking. Keep thinking, keep innovating--innovated." And--and so that's why I mentioned George Koch.

LAMB: Of all these rules that--and these lessons, and all that you have in here: `risk, tenacity, embrace change, vision, audacity, use of information, empowerment, courage of conviction, change the rules.' Which one of those is the most important in your own leadership world?
WHEELER: I think there are three. The big three are: `dare to fail'--you--you--you cannot win if your goal is not to lose. Secondly, that kind of attitude is going to produce losses. So what do you do about those losses? How do you handle those losses? And that's why the second big lesson I think is `if at first you don't succeed, so what?' And that's what we were talking about with Grant.

And the third, and I guess probably the greatest of the three, is the importance of the individual. Great battles are determined by small skirmishes that are decided by individual human beings. You asked me a minute ago about the first Minnesota. Individuals made that determination. Gettysburg was saved because of a 26-year-old warrior and a 34-year-old college professor--Strong Vincent and Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain--who literally saved the Union position at--on the second day of Gettysburg, and quite possibly saved the Republic as a result. Individuals count.

And the other thing that I think that I learned is--is--is--as I--as I wrote this book is that a leader is not defined by title or by the amount of brass that he's got on his shoulder. A leader is anybody who makes a decision. And--and individuals end up making decisions. And, again, I go back to the point I was saying at the outset, that I think that the--the thing that makes the Civil War so real to us today is these were common people, just like you and me, who were called upon to make decisions, just like you and I are.

LAMB: There's a parenthetical expression in here, and it goes to all these people at this dinner party, too. But I'll read it. It says, `Unfortunately, the examples from the Civil War are limited to men, since women were denied leadership roles in the 1860s.'
WHEELER: Right.
LAMB: And none of these people that you named, sitting around that table, are women.
WHEELER: Right.
LAMB: Why?
WHEELER: Right. The system didn't work that way at that point in time. There was the beginnings of a feminist revolution taking place at that point in time. We had the beginnings--when--when you think of the--the Clara Bartons and others who--who clearly played important roles in the Civil War and--and were--were asserting that perhaps women did have a place other than at the hearth. But that wasn't who the leaders of the Civil War on the battlefield were.
LAMB: From your experience working with women over the years, how would they do things differently if they were in these leadership positions? Any--any observations?
WHEELER: A really interesting question, Brian. I--I think that--that--that the--the broader the perspective that you can get on an issue, the less--the--the--the--the more blunt that issue becomes, if--if you will, and the less, perhaps, you would be even inclined to conflict. That--that--and--and I mean the whole spectrum, it's not just women. But let's talk about all of the different kinds of segments of society that were really excluded. And--and what--and the way our society works today is one of involvement. And--and that involvement tends to temper things, I think.
LAMB: What's your wife's reaction to this book? Did she have any involvement? Did she read it? I'm sure she saw that parenthetical little expression in there.
WHEELER: You know, we've never talked about--about that parenthetical expression. Carol is the wisest person I know. When Ron Nessen said to me, `You ought to write a book,' I went home that night, sat at the dinner table, and I said, `You know, Ron said an interesting thing today.' And she looked up and she said, `Do it. It's in you.' And that was about all the encouragement I needed, and she never wavered off of that kind of encouragement, including picking up a whole heck of a lot more load at home so that I could hide out and write the book.
LAMB: You have an interactive book, you say, here.
WHEELER: Yes.
LAMB: And you have a Web site that's www.civilwarleadership--all lowercase--.com.
WHEELER: Right.
LAMB: `.com' means it's for profit. What is that?
WHEELER: You can go to that site--and what I hope that people will be doing is interacting with the thoughts that are in the book, having their own examples of what these lessons mean to them or their own experiences in--in their own corporate lives or challenging, saying, `No, you're wrong.' And maybe we can get a dialogue going. I--I'd like to hope that this isn't static, that--that there are ideas in here that are clearly worth challenging. I'm sure there are things in here that some people will think are flat-out mistakes. And there are also things in here that may trigger somebody to say, `You know, that reminds me about the experience I had at'--and let's see if we can get a dialogue going that shares those back and forth.
LAMB: There are longer lessons, and I'm going to have--get a close-up here so that people can see what they are. I mean, those--those were short takes there in the last chapter.
WHEELER: Right.
LAMB: `Dare to Fail,' `If at First You Don't Succeed, So What?, `Yesterday's Tactics Makes Today's Defeats,' `It's the Next Hill,' `A Bold Response Can Trump a Perfect Plan,' `Information Is Only Critical If It Is Used Properly'--I'm having trouble seeing this. It's not in focus. `Small kermish--Skirmishes Decide Great Battles,' `To Be a Leader, You Must Lead,' `If You Can't Win, Change the Rules' and `All Together: The Lessons of Bill McGowan and MCI.'

Were there lessons that you thought up that you didn't use?

WHEELER: Yes.
LAMB: Give us a couple.
WHEELER: Yeah. This is a--this is a book--I--I made a decision that this was a book about strategy. If there is a next book, it will be about personal leadership. What is it that--that were the lessons about individual, personal leadership? For instance, the ability to communicate. Robert E. Lee was a brilliant general, but he did a pretty poor job communicating to his subordinates. Now when you have a Jackson who can takes things and run, that--that's one thing. But he probably didn't carry Culp's Hill on the first day of--of the Battle of Gettysburg because he said to the general, `You will take it if at all practicable,' kind of use your own judgment instead of, `Hey, take that hill. We need that height.' He--so he--he didn't do a very good job communicating with his folks.

On the other hand, there's another example--Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, who--who--who--before the Battle of Gettysburg was given command of 100 mutineers, and he had to rally them to his cause. He couldn't have held out at Little RoundTop if he was worried about the fact that in his 300 men were 100 mutineers. And he sat down with them and he talked to them and he dialogued and he communicated with them, and he brought them over to his side. So what's the role of--of communication? But I think those are personal kinds of leadership issues. These are more strategic.

LAMB: You mentioned George Koch at the Grocery Manufacturers. When--what reason did you come to Washington in the first place?
WHEELER: I--I came to Washington first in 1967 as a congressional intern.
LAMB: Where?
WHEELER: For Congressman Chalmers Wiley from Ohio--then went back and finished college, got involved in a political campaign in Ohio.
LAMB: Whose?
WHEELER: Jack Gilligan's Senate race in 1968.
LAMB: Former mayor of Cincinnati?
WHEELER: Former mayor of Cincinnati, was former Cincinnati city councilman, former congressman, subsequently governor of Ohio. And--and--and that--we lost that race--Jack lost that race, but was kind enough to suggest to George Koch that, `Here's a young kid you might want to take under your wing.' And--'cause I wanted to come back to Washington.
LAMB: How long did you work for him?
WHEELER: Seven years.
LAMB: Then what?
WHEELER: Then I went to the National Cable Television Association, and I was there for seven or eight years.
LAMB: What was the reason you switched from groceries to cable television?
WHEELER: Time to grow is the real answer to that. And--and there--there were things happening in the cable television business at that point in time that were quite exciting. I had a lot of folks say to me, `Oh, my golly, you don't want to get involved in that. Nobody knows where that's going to come out.' Well, I found that exciting.
LAMB: What did you do after that?
WHEELER: Then I went out on my own into several entrepreneurial activities. I think that probably one of the reasons that--that I think that--that `If at first you don't succeed, so what?' is such a great lesson is that I--I demonstrated failure in those--in some of those times. And--and then, I was fortunate enough to get involved in the cellular telephone business and then come back and run CTIA.
LAMB: Are you worried that some of your own board members won't see their names in here and they won't be compared to Civil War generals?
WHEELER: No, no.
LAMB: Did you ever think about putting somebody in there from your business, directly, that's--or I mean, that was a--I mean, was it a problem at all with all the people you know?
WHEELER: This is--this is not--this is not a political book. This is not--it--it--it is not politically correct in terms of, `Well, I better have my chairman of the board in there,' or somebody like--like this. And--and I don't think that those individuals think that way, or are that--those--those kind of people, anyway.
LAMB: What did you think of this experience?
WHEELER: It was a great experience. I--I learned more about myself than I learned about the Civil War, I must say.
LAMB: What did you learn about yourself?
WHEELER: Well, you had to come to grips with all these issues. I mean, you had to--you had to--to--to sit there and just say, `OK, what is leadership and how do I explain it?'

And the other part about it that's--that was probably the hardest part is: How do you not get preachy? You know, how do you--I get very animated and very excited about the concept here. But how do you--how do you tell the story in such a way that you don't sound like a sanctimonious fool? And--and--and I'm sure I crossed over that line a few times in the book. But--but that also helped me learn about myself.

LAMB: But how about this? I mean, you know--as you said earlier, you--there's so many books that have been written about the Civil War. I mean, who vetted this for you? Were you afraid that you'd find yourself making statements about these generals and, you know, this is your first book and then--uh-oh--somebody says, `You have no idea what you're talking about, Wheeler'?
WHEELER: Ah--yes.
LAMB: How did you protect yourself?
WHEELER: Brian, the first lesson is `Dare to Fail.'
LAMB: Is that all you need to say? I mean, is it--but did you have somebody that...
WHEELER: A--a historian, for instance? No, no. And this is not a historic book--I guess probably--this is not a historical book. This is a book that tells stories. It tells stories about the Civil War and relates them to stories about modern business. It tells stories about the challenges that we face today and relates them to how people addressed similar challenges in, frankly, much more difficult times.

Is--if--if somebody wants to learn to--to read the ultimate treatise on the American Civil War, this is not that book. But if--if--if somebody wants to--to read some very interesting stories about the war and relate them to today, this is that book.

LAMB: The book is called "Leadership Lessons from the Civil War." Our guest has been Tom Wheeler, "Winning Strategies for Today's Managers." Thank you very much.
WHEELER: Thank you, Brian.


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