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Two things I learned about team building from First Minnesota

How Union soldiers can teach in-house litigators some important lessons on team building

In her new book, “Lawyers as Leaders,” Professor Deborah Rhode argues that the legal profession must do a better job of training lawyers to be leaders. This is a proposition that’s difficult to argue with. However one feels about lawyers, there are few who would contend that the profession is peopled with stellar leaders. Unlike business schools, where leadership has long been part of the curriculum, law schools have historically focused on teaching technical skills. Leadership roles were presumed to flow to the most technically skillful. Today, however, we have a profession whose leaders are not necessarily either proficient lawyers or skilled leaders.

I certainly do not consider myself a “great leader,” far from it, but for 10 years now it has been my honor and privilege to lead two great corporate litigation teams. I have worked very hard to be the best leader I could be to both of them. I know that sometimes I have fallen short. I’d like to think that sometimes I have done alright.

With the benefit of that experience, I want to focus on two aspects of leadership not discussed in Professor Rhode’s book, two things about team building I learned from a now mostly forgotten group of long-dead men. As always, it begins with a story.

A long time ago, when I was still clerking, my judge and I traveled to Minnesota so that he could sit by designation with the 8th Circuit. Finding myself with time on my hands, I took a walk through St. Paul and ended up wandering into the handsome State Capitol building. In the rotunda of the Capitol there was a glass case. And in the glass case there was a flag. Not just any flag—a dirty, ripped, bullet-ridden, relic of a flag—the flag of the First Minnesota Regiment. My heart skipped a beat because I knew something of the history represented by this flag.

The First Minnesota was one of the very first regiments of volunteer soldiers raised in response to Abraham Lincoln’s call for volunteers to defend the Union after the fall of Fort Sumter. It was raised in St. Paul and surrounding communities in April 1861, long before the horrible brutality of the coming war could even have been imagined by the men who rushed to join the regiment. Many of them already knew each other. The unit shipped east and fought with distinction in all the early major battles of the Army of the Potomac. But it passed into legend on the second day of the Battle of Gettysburg on July 2, 1863.

On that day, Confederate troops were close to breaking the center of the Union line at a place called Cemetery Ridge, thus winning the battle and probably the war. Union General Hancock ordered the only available unit, the vastly outnumbered First Minnesota, to make a desperate bayonet charge against the advancing Confederates to buy time to allow Hancock to bring in reinforcements. Though they knew this was essentially a suicide mission, the First Minnesota executed the order flawlessly and instantly. It succeeded in delaying the Confederate advance long enough so that the Ridge could be reinforced. But 82 percent of its men were killed or wounded in the effort—the highest single day casualty rate in the history of the American Army. President Coolidge later called them the savior of their nation. That flag I saw in the rotunda was the flag they flew that day. It fell five times and each time was picked up by another member of the regiment.

One may fairly ask, “What does all of this have to do with team building in corporate America?” After all, there is nothing we face in the corporate world that remotely can compare with the agony and suffering of the men of the First Minnesota. But it does not dishonor the memory of these brave men to ask whether in fact there is some lesson for us mere lawyers in their heroic deeds. I think there are two.

1. You have to care—I mean actually care—about your team.

I am not talking about caring in a bureaucratic, HR kind of way; I am talking about caring deeply and personally about each and every one of the individuals you presume to lead. After all, every one of them is entrusting an important part of their lives to you. Their jobs matter to them and make a difference in the quality of their lives and those of their partners and children. Their hopes and dreams are in a very real way tied up in yours. You are all in this together. And if you care for them, they will learn to care for and trust in each other.

Soldiers, of course, have known this for a long time. If you read accounts of wars by people who actually fought in them, one persistent theme is the idea that when the crisis hits, when their unit is under attack and death seems close, soldiers continue to fight not because they have been ordered to, but because they want fight for each other. They fight because they would rather die than abandon their comrades.

And so it was with the First Minnesota. It was a close unit of soldiers who grew up together on the prairies and who had already fought many battles together and lost many comrades. The idea that any one of them would let the others risk their lives alone was unthinkable. And so they all did their duty. And we are all the better for it. That is what teamwork really means.

2. A leader must be able to articulate clearly for the team its fundamental purpose, and he or she must be able to persuade the team to embrace and commit to that purpose.

People will work for money, but they will only commit to a cause. What companies need today are committed employees. A shared sense of purpose is central to that commitment. Once again we can learn from the First Minnesota.

The young men who joined the regiment in the spring of 1861 had a variety of reasons for enlisting, some noble, some ignoble and some naive. We know that some imagined they were embarking on a brief adventure and would soon be home again. But by the summer of 1863, all such illusions would have been shattered. On the day the regiment faced its destiny, the men who charged down that ridge to almost certain death surely knew exactly what they were fighting for. And a few months later, on that very ground, Abraham Lincoln would forever immortalize that purpose. The men who gave their lives at Gettysburg died, he said, so that this nation might have a new birth of freedom. Seldom have soldiers died for a better cause.

In our more prosaic and pedestrian lives it can be harder to visualize and hold on to your team’s higher purpose. But part of your job is to help your team do just that. And most organizations do have a meaningful and valuable reason for existing other than making money. In the case of the industry I work in the mission is clear — to make medicines that will enhance and improve people’s lives. That’s a pretty good cause, too. One worth fighting for.

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