Custer's lessons in bold leadership

Gen. George A. Custer is a rather controversial figure, mostly remembered for his defeat and death at the Battle of Little Bighorn, but he was a successful leader for the Union Army during the Civil War. (Photo courtesy National Archives)

Gen. George A. Custer is a rather controversial figure, mostly remembered for his defeat and death at the Battle of Little Bighorn, but he was a successful leader for the Union Army during the Civil War. (Photo courtesy National Archives)

ROBINS AIR FORCE BASE, Ga. --

"Airmen have much to learn about bold leadership from George Armstrong Custer," said no one ever.

George Armstrong Custer?  Seriously?  The man who led the Army's 7th Cavalry Regiment into one of the most embarrassing defeats in U.S. history?

It is true that Custer is best known for his last and biggest failure, the Battle of Little Big Horn, where more than half of the 7th Cavalry were killed by Lakota Sioux under the leadership of Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse.  The image that many Americans have of Custer is the caricature portrayed by Bill Hader in Night at the Museum 2--vain, vapid, and stupid.

But Custer's legacy of leadership is much bigger than Little Big Horn and pop culture, and to view him only in those terms ignores a man who was a bold warrior to the end.  At age 23, Custer was promoted to the rank of brigadier general, the youngest in the Union army.  In fact, Maj. Gen. Philip Sheridan so strongly believed that Custer was the hero of the battle of Appomattox Court House that he purchased the table on which General Robert E. Lee surrendered the Army of Northern Virginia from Wilmer McLean for $20 and presented it to Custer's wife as a memento.

So what on earth can Custer teach us about bold leadership?

Custer took audacious risks.  On the third day of Gettysburg, Custer led one of his subordinate units, the 1st Michigan Cavalry, in a violent charge against the center of a much larger force of Jeb Stuart's cavalry, while remnants of the Fifth and Seventh Michigan Cavalry Regiments attacked Stuart's flanks.  Stuart, one of the greatest cavalry commanders in history, withdrew his cavalry from the battlefield, and was stymied by a 23-year-old Custer who had only a week of time-in-grade as a general officer.  At Waynesboro, Va., Custer pushed his division through mud and pelting rain to surround a Confederate army of 2,000 under the command of Lt. Gen. Jubal Early.  In less than three hours, Custer's cavalry captured 1,800 prisoners, fourteen artillery pieces, seventeen battle flags, and 200 supply wagons.

Custer led from the front.  At Brandy Station, the largest cavalry-on-cavalry battle fought on North American soil, Custer led several attacks and had two horses shot out from under him.  At Gettysburg, he led the attack against Stuart by yelling to his Michigan cavalrymen, "Come on, you Wolverines!"  At Trevilian Station, Custer rode along the Union lines, in full view of the enemy, and urged his men to hold their positions and practice fire discipline.  It is likely that Custer preferred his flashy uniform, flamboyant red scarf, and long flowing yellow locks of hair because it made it easier for his men and the enemy to distinguish his presence on at the front of the battle.

Custer was a student of the profession of arms.  Much is made of Custer's poor performance as a cadet at West Point.  Custer certainly did not excel in his STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) courses, which is a surefire path to disaster at a federal service academy, and his propensity for pranks and mischief accumulated a record number of demerits.  At the end of his plebe year, he ranked 52nd in mathematics and 57th in English in a class of 62.  He did, however, excel in horsemanship, athletics, leadership and tactics, which served him well on the battlefield.

But if Custer was such a brilliant military leader, how did he colossally fail at Little Big Horn?  Historians, war college students, and armchair tacticians have and will continue to debate what happened at Little Big Horn, and because Custer and the five companies under his personal command were all killed, we can never know for certain what happened.  Custer had a penchant for bold plans violently executed, and it was an approach that has always paid off for him in the past.  Some theorize that resentful subordinate leaders failed to follow through on the battle plan, leaving Custer vulnerable to defeat.  Perhaps his luck simply ran out.  There is no reason to doubt that Custer died fighting the way that Custer always fought.

Bold leaders who take audacious risks don't always succeed.  The Air Force provides us a great many tools to help us reduce the risk of failure, like checklists, risk management, Lean and Six Sigma process improvement, staff summary sheets, etc.

These are only tools.  Too often, we allow them to be substitutes for leadership.

We need bold leaders who take audacious risks, lead from the front, and are lifelong students of the profession of war.

(Col. Rob Palmer is the director of public affairs for Air Force Reserve Command.  He relied upon Glorious War:  The Civil War Adventures of George Armstrong Custer by Thom Hatch for the historical material presented in this commentary.)

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