In this series, we’re exploring how the five areas of the United States Army’s “operations order” can be applied to a civilian organizational context to care for and develop the people involved, while also ensuring maximum effectiveness. You can find the introduction to the series here.

View from the Summit of Little Round Top
(Edwin Forbes)

It is 1863, and Colonel Joshua Chamberlain makes a situational assessment for his staff as he prepares for the final stage of the Battle of Little Round Top. His unit, the 20th Maine, holds the end of the line of the Union defense. If they collapse, the entire Union Army will be flanked and defeated.

Gettysburg (created from Michale Shaara’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Killer Angels) makes a guess at his battlefield analysis. “We can’t run away,” he says, “and if we stay here we can’t shoot.” They are out of ammunition. One supposes they are scared and exhausted.

But Chamberlain considers the Union Army’s need (critical) and not only the strength but the morale of the Confederate troops: The Rebs have got to be tired, he supposes. His unit’s positioning gives an advantage, too; he holds the high ground, literally the top of the hill, always a military advantage. The Confederate troops have ammunition, but will have to attack uphill. His consideration is brief; a few desperate sentences in the movie, and one wonders how much of necessity might trump reality as he makes his decision to cry: Bayonets!

This decision, and the decision to engage his troops without ammunition, means close combat, instead of the distance ballistics could afford. He knows it is the last push and the only chance for the Union Army, but he has developed trust and close relationships with his subordinates, inspiring the confidence to push through their disbelief at what may well be their own final charges.

This kind of quick decision making is only possible with an intimate understanding of a situation, requiring that a leader understand both herself and her people, their capabilities and morale. While capabilities—in a technical sense—suggests a more quantitative equation for decision making, it is the softer side, considering the human equation, that is most important. The most advanced resources will not help if the people employing them are untrained, unmotivated, or unorganized. The most meager resources can be used to wonderful ends with capable and willing hands.

In a military operations order, the first paragraph (or section) briefed is a detailed description of friendly and enemy forces—an understanding of the capabilities arrayed in support of and against the work of the unit. A military intelligence officer usually prepares this section of the briefing; as a member of the unit staff, she or he is intimately familiar with the operational and human characteristics of the unit. The presentation includes where the forces are positioned and sometimes a detailed rundown of their weaponry. It includes a strength assessment as well, considering recent engagements and capabilities remaining both in capacity and unit morale.

In the civilian context, a situational consideration is sometimes done as a SWOT analysis, considering strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats. Whatever tool is used to help analyze the lay of the land, it is a critical part of the planning process, the part that sets the stage.

It’s most important to remember, however, that while a close reporting of resources is indeed important, the human element is equal or greater in importance. This reality underscoring the importance of relationship is what sets the stage to build the closeness for both fellowship and effective execution.


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