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Lessons from Custer’s Last Stand…

With the recent story breaking about the Flag from Custer’s last stand selling at $2.2 million, I found some great “lessons learned” that can help us to avoid his same mistakes when starting a new business.

At the same time, let’s not forget that failure is an integral part of success, when it’s reviewed, digested and used to actually shape future decisions.

On June 25, 1876, Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer made a fateful decision to engage an overwhelmingly superior force of more than 2,000 Lakota Sioux, Cheyenne and Arapaho warriors with only about 210 members of the 7th U.S. Cavalry along the Little Bighorn River in what is now south eastern Montana.

History is made of such decisions, and so it was for Custer, who paid dearly for his. He paid for his decision with his life — and the lives of all those under his command — in a battle long remembered as the Battle of the Little Bighorn, or “Custer’s Last Stand.”

Giving your life is the ultimate price for a bad decision, but Custer’s decision-making was especially poor in so many ways.

1. He refused to listen to others, figuring his judgment was superior. Custer was ordered to hold off on any attack and to wait for reinforcements that were being led by Brig. Gen. Alfred Terry, but impatience got the better of him and Custer foolishly decided to act. Waiting would have been more sensible, because Gen. Terry and his troops arrived on June 26.

2. He was arrogant. Custer was guilty of overconfident in his own talents and guilty of hubris, just like so many modern executives. He grossly underestimated the number of Indians facing him, pooh-poohed their abilities, and failed to understand the many advantages the competition had. Here’s one big one: While Custer’s troops were generally armed with single-shot rifles, the Indians had a number of repeating rifles that made their superior numbers even more so. Less hubris and ego might have helped Custer have a healthier respect of what he was facing.

3. He wasn’t entirely focused on the job at hand. Custer’s focus wasn’t on fighting and defeating the Indians who were itching to fight him at the Little Bighorn. His misguided concern was that he needed to trap them and prevent their escape. That’s why he split his forces into three parts, diluting his overall strength. The other two units of the 7th Cavalry, led by Capt. Frederick Benteen and Maj. Marcus Reno, survived a fierce two-day fight that ended when Terry’s reinforcements arrived.

4. He was outmanaged. Custer was facing wily Indian leader Sitting Bull, who lured him into a fight on his timetable, on a field of his choosing, and with a much larger (and superior) force. In addition, Sitting Bull delegated well. He trusted in Crazy Horse, his able field lieutenant, who executed the battle plan perfectly.

5. He had terribly bad luck. It’s often said that luck is when preparation and opportunity meet, and that was certainly true for Sitting Bull and his forces at the Battle of the Little Bighorn. The other side of that coin is that Custer had the terrible misfortune of deciding to fight what is still considered to be the largest force of Indian warriors ever assembled in North America, and he did it with an undersized and outgunned cavalry unit that he split into three parts.

On top of that, the Indian forces were passionate about what they were doing. They were defending their turf and felt they had something to prove. Custer’s cavalry, on the other hand, was tired of chasing Indians and just wanted to get home. They had very little passion for fighting at all.

So what can we learn from the Battle of the Little Big Horn to help us avoid our own ‘last stand’? Here is my every day interpretation of 10 reasons why Custer was defeated.

1. Never act alone. Entrepreneurs never succeed by themselves. Leverage the support, resources and wisdom of those around you.

2. Avoid mental and organizational fatigue. There is nothing like driving so hard for an objective, only to achieve a Pyrrhic victory. Remember, man was not made for business, but business was made for man.

3. Harness the power of focus. Multitasking is a farce. Don’t spread yourself or your organizational energy too thin. Focus everything on what’s most important, knock it out, and then move on to the next most important goal.

4. Expect everything – that way you will always get what you expected. Somewhere, there is a kid with a laptop starting a business that will blow you out of the water if she gets the chance.

5. Don’t get outnumbered. Keep your networks and circles of influence growing. In this increasingly networked world, you draw instant power from your ability to move thousands through social media.

6. Don’t ignore the advice of others, especially your customers and constituents. Build your own meta-knowledge.

7. Never go up against someone named ‘Crazy Horse”. It just sounds suicidal to begin with.

8. Fight every battle like it’s your last stand. It just might be.

9. You can never have too much information; about the customer, about the competition, about the performance of your product or service, about your own people and your own organization.

10. Try and get into the habit of asking a few more dumb questions. They are so much easier to handle than dumb mistakes.

  • April 4, 2016

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