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News > Commentary - Leadership lessons from a little-known American hero
Lt. Col. Allen Kidd
Lt. Col. Allen Kidd, 436th Medical Operations Squadron commander
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Leadership lessons from a little-known American hero

Posted 10/27/2010   Updated 10/27/2010 Email story   Print story


Commentary by Lt. Col. Allen Kidd
436th Medical Operations Squadron commander

10/27/2010 - DOVER AIR FORCE BASE, Del. -- Quite a number of years ago, while a student at Squadron Officer School, my classmates and I were required to prepare and deliver a 10-minute briefing on our favorite warrior hero. While my classmates briefed on well-known warriors such as Chuck Yeager, Hap Arnold, Eddie Rickenbacker, and Gen. George Patton, I chose a warrior who, surprisingly, no one had ever heard of. I doubt you've heard of him either, but he is one of the most famous and accomplished warriors from the American Revolutionary War.

His name: Gen. George Rogers Clark. He wasn't widely known for a couple of reasons: 1) he lived and fought during a period when America had many, more familiar heroes - George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, to name a few; and 2) he fought on the lesser-known western front in what is present-day Illinois and Indiana.

So what's the big deal about this guy? The big deal is with a rag-tag army of only 170 Kentucky frontiersmen, he captured several key British forts, one without firing a shot, which resulted in protection of frontier settlers and the gain of a vast territory including Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, Wisconsin and Minnesota.

The other big deal is he displayed an amazing array of leadership qualities that are directly applicable to today's American warriors, including you and me!

Beginning in 1775, soon to be-Lt. Col. Clark, older brother of the more famous William Clark of "Lewis and Clark" fame, founded several settlements in the wilderness of Kentucky (yes, my home state), regularly fighting off Indian attacks and eventually becoming the founder of the Commonwealth of Kentucky in 1776.

In 1777, with the British backing Indian raids on American settlements, Lt. Col. Clark recognized the critical need to attack and take the British forts at Kaskaskia, Illinois and Vincennes in present-day Indiana. With Virginia legislature approval to raise an army of 350 men, Clark was only able to muster about 170 due to the need for men to remain at home to defend against the Indians.

Despite overwhelming odds, under-manned and under-equipped, Clark departed Corn Island (present-day Louisville, Kentucky) June 24, 1778 and completely surprised the British at Fort Gage, Kaskaskia in the middle of the night on July 4.

He and his army walked through the open gate of the fort, disarmed the unsuspecting soldiers who were dancing at a party and captured the acting British governor Phillepe-Francors Rocheblave in his bedroom as he was retiring for the night, all without firing a single shot. Lt. Col. Clark welcomed the British soldiers to continue their party, but told them they were now dancing under the flag of Virginia.

The taking of Fort Sackville in Vincennes was one of the most daring and unbelievable feats of the war. With over 500 British troops in garrison at Fort Sackville planning to attack and retake Fort Gage in the spring of 1779, Lt. Col. Clark launched a daring mid-winter surprise attack on the fort.

On Feb. 4, 1779, Clark led his 170 men on a nearly impossible 200 mile journey through flooded valleys, often wading in icy water up to their necks, and arrived at the fort only 18 days later with most of his men nearly naked, half-starved and almost frozen to death. Despite the odds, Lt. Col. Clark distributed 20 American flags amongst his men, divided the army into multiple groups and surrounded the fort, allowing his men to show themselves only briefly, sounding multiple bugle calls and displaying their flags, deceiving the British into thinking his army was many times its actual size.

On Feb. 25, after only brief exchanges of gunfire, British Gen. Henry Hamilton unconditionally surrendered, thinking he had no chance against this superior army. He was greatly surprised and quite humiliated to learn he had surrendered to 170 half-starved and poorly equipped Kentuckians.

So what are the leadership lessons we can learn from Lt. Col. George Rogers Clark? First, he was an outstanding innovator with incredible courage and confidence, unafraid to tackle the most unimaginable tasks with the odds far in favor of his opponent.

Application today? While we're unlikely to have to hike through 200 miles of icewater to accomplish our mission, I'm confident our Airmen can muster the innovation and courage to accomplish remarkable feats if we'll lead them and have the courage to let them take risks.

Second, Lt. Col. Clark was the "lead from the front" poster child. One account of the march to Vincennes describes a moment when his men were wet, freezing, hungry and greatly discouraged. Lt. Col. Clark went to the front, smeared gunpowder on his face and dove into the water, rallying his men to continue the mission and they followed!

How often do we ask for sacrifice from our Airmen working in the elements while we're drinking coffee in our comfortable offices? Never, I hope!

Third, Lt. Col. Clark had a vision, not only of what was required to preserve and make his country a reality, but also a safe place for future generations - he knew the great risks of not taking action, even at great personal sacrifice; While our country may not fail if your organization flounders, think about the impact on the larger mission if you develop and communicate to them (or fail to) a worthy, effective vision.

Fourth (and I'm sure you knew this was coming), Lt. Col. Clark was arguably the most physically fit individual in his army. While most men (and women) of that day had to be fit to survive, Lt. Col. Clark was known as an incredibly fit, almost superhuman giant of a man. Do you fit that description? Probably not, and neither do I, but leaders at every level should strive to lead the way every day in the pursuit of outstanding physical fitness, demonstrating this as a lifestyle that should be adopted by all.

Finally, while not evident in the description above, Lt. Col. Clark had an outstanding knack for diplomacy. He met with and convinced the Indians not to engage his army during their march to Vincennes, though they greatly outnumbered him. He also convinced his men to stick with him and see the mission through when they had every reason to leave and return to the defense of their families.

Can you improve the functioning of your unit by using a little diplomacy? I see this in action every day at Dover with squadrons and groups working closely together to accomplish the mission, not caring who gets the credit or who might win some frivolous argument.

By studying the leadership qualities of America's past heroes, even the relative unknowns, we can glean applicable techniques and principles for use today. Read up on Lt. Col. Clark, or maybe a hero from your home state, and see what you can learn and pass on to today's warriors.

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