Keeping Cool Under Pressure


In the summer of 1863, Union General William Rosecrans led the Army of the Cumberland into Tennessee. After brilliantly faking Confederate General Braxton Bragg out of Chattanooga, he mistook withdrawal for retreat and plunged into a trap Bragg had set at Chickamauga Creek.

During the battle, when southern General James Longstreet exploited a gap in the Union line, the troops broke and headed for the rear, taking much of the high command with them. Rosecrans, a devout Roman Catholic, was seen crossing himself as he rode back to Chattanooga, where he had to be helped from his horse. Assistant Secretary of War Charles Dana, who was on the field, wrote to Washington, “Bull Run had nothing more terrible than the rout of these veteran troops.”

But General George Thomas wasn’t running anywhere. As a correspondent at the time wrote, “One of those crises had now arrived, rare in the history of any country, where the personal character and power of an individual become of incalculable value to the general welfare.”

Thomas assembled a defense line along Horseshoe Ridge. It didn’t matter what regiment or brigade the men were from as long as they could handle a gun. There were no speeches and no calls for greatness, just George Thomas riding quietly among the men. If Old Reliable was sticking around, it was probably going to be all right. The only emotion Thomas evidenced was scratching his beard more than usual. He told a colonel the men had to hold their position regardless of the cost, and the colonel replied, “We’ll hold it, general, or we’ll go to heaven from it.” Many of them did, but the rest held through the day until Thomas retired in good order. Chickamauga was a bloody defeat, but Thomas had saved the Army of the Cumberland and became forever known as the “Rock of Chickamauga.”

It is true that troops respond the same way as their leader: when Rosecrans ran, the troops ran with him; however, when Thomas stood, his troops fought with him. If you respond with cool, clear thought, the people you work with will do the same; however, the heat of passion or the grips of despair will inflame or discourage those who work with or for you.

When everyone is in a panic and when the “wheels come off of the wagon,” a true leader is one who stays cool, keeps his or her head and rallies the troops. In our work life, the crises we deal with cannot be successfully solved by heated words, that lead only to a greater problem; or, by retreat, which only prolongs the inevitable; or, by rash decisions, which only worsen the predicament. In business as in war, resolving a crisis requires keeping a “cool” head by not giving in to panic; and, by developing and choosing the best options to solve the crisis and then taking action.

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