Lead Like a General: An Interview With Paul Gilbert

Paul Gilbert talks about his new book that offers leadership advice using examples from some of the good, and bad, leaders during the Civil War era.

Paul Gilbert is the executive director of the Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority. He is also an historian and an expert on leadership who serves as an adjunct professor at George Mason University and on the Board of Regents at the School for Revenue Development and Management at Oglebay. His new book “Lead Like A General” uses examples from the Civil War to illustrate modern leadership principles that can be applied to any endeavor in life. Patch contributor Mike Conway spoke with him about the book. Here are highlights from the conversation:


What was your purpose in writing this book?


Well, it’s a bit of a hybrid book that’s both history and some cutting edge research on leadership. I’m not trying to tell the story of the Civil War, but instead give good and bad examples of leadership during the war and tie it into modern research on leadership. I try to draw on a number of areas that relate to how people interact in organizations and how we perceive progress and growth. I tried to draw from the most up-to-date academic research on these subjects. While the insights are new, though, people haven’t changed, which allowed me to draw on the Civil War for my examples.

One of my goals, as well, was to focus on local Civil War history. I try to draw examples that pull from a 50- to 100-mile radius of Washington, D.C. and Northern Virginia. Most of the stories are very local. Being in the park field, I wanted to draw attention to the great public places and parks we have in order to help preserve them. In the back of the book I highlight where many of these actions occurred, illustrating what they were and what they are today.


Each chapter focuses on a specific individual leader during the war and uses them to illustrate a specific leadership principle.  Which point do you find the most compelling?


Well, I think one of the most important examples of leadership during the war has to be John Mosby, who I used to illustrate both the Importance of Innovation and the Power of Momentum. If Mosby had been playing by the rules, he would’ve been captured the first week. But since he wasn’t trained at a military school, he hadn’t spent his time learning what all the other Civil War leaders had learned. Instead, he was able to look at what made historical figures great, such as Napoleon or Frederick the Great, and apply their lessons to the battlefield.

In addition, Mosby had a great deal of success even though he was almost always outnumbered because he’d been building a record of success. He picked his engagements carefully, choosing only what was bold and could be won. As a result, his men believed that whatever he did would be successful.  When you go into battle with the belief you will win, you’ve usually already won. It also worked the opposite way on his opponents. He’d developed a reputation for bold, daring, successful attacks, which terrified the Union forces.


In addition to Mosby, you use a number of leaders from both sides, including Abraham Lincoln, General Lee, General Grant and some lesser-known individuals.


I tried to draw examples roughly evenly from both sides, choosing lessons that can be applied to any organization. Everyone is a leader at some point, whether with a company, church or civic organization, we all have times in our lives where people look to us for leadership. The benefit of this book is that there are lessons there for everyone. It’s a powerful book for anyone who wants to hone their leadership skills. Leadership skills are not born, they need to be studied, practiced, and honed. You can do that by learning about what others have done well.


In the chapter on having a compelling mission, you use Abraham Lincoln as an example. Describe how the Union’s mission changed during the war and how, in your view, it affected the outcome.


Most Americans know that Lincoln freed the slaves and was president during the Civil War, but not much else. A lot of people don’t know the circumstances behind some of his decisions or the situations that brought them about. The decision to emancipate the slaves came midway through the war in 1863. Before that, the stated goal of the war was simply to “preserve the Union,” meaning that America consisted of a number of states and they simply couldn’t leave.

For a soldier, that’s not a terribly compelling mission. The South, on the other hand, was fighting to defend the homeland. When Lincoln made the politically challenging decision to make the war about freedom and emancipating slaves, it was huge and carried enormous political consequences, but it also added a powerful sense of mission to the Union cause. If you look at the war before the Emancipation Proclamation, the Union won some battles but lost significantly more. After the Emancipation Proclamation, they really began to turn the tide. There are a lot of factors, sure, but having that compelling mission began pushing them forward. In any organization, you need to have a clearly articulated vision that everyone is striving for, otherwise the organization doesn’t reach its potential.


Lead Like A General is available at Amazon.com or at several historic sites throughout Northern Virginia. Paul Gilbert will be signing copies on Aug. 28 at the Manassas Museum at 2 p.m.


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