December 5, 2022

Small Business Advice

Ego and Injury

Jerry Osteryoung | 7/2/2007

The great corrupter of public man is the ego....Looking at the mirror distracts one's attention from the problem.
— Dean Acheson [Taken from a speech to the Society of American Historians, as reported in The Wall Street Journal, April 22, 1966]

I was lucky enough to get selected to attend the National Security Seminar at the Army War College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. The purpose of this seminar was to give the Army’s future leaders insight into how the public thinks and feels about national security issues. As part of this seminar, we were taken on a very in-depth tour of Gettysburg.

General Robert E. Lee was the Confederate general managing the battle at Gettysburg. His number two officer, General Longstreet, had ample practical experience on the battlefield. During the second day of battle, Longstreet advised against Lee’s strategy. Lee, however, did not listen, and the day’s battle did not go well.

This confrontation, which is frequently called Pickett’s Charge, is so vivid to me because our military guide made our group walk in formation along the same route that Pickett led his soldiers during this final battle. It was awful. We were out in the middle of a very large field with no protection and no real way to defend ourselves.

After the battle was over, Lee commented to Longstreet that he was wrong in making these decisions. So what made him make such disastrous decisions despite having received opposing advice? There is some dispute about this, but many historians claim that Lee was injured during this battle or just before.

Personally, I find that it is so hard to gain clarity when I am ill as I am just trying to survive. Most decision makers avoid making decisions when they are not feeling well, and in cases where they must, they get input from many people in order to make sure that they are making the correct decision. Experience has shown that when we are not feeling 100% physically well, we generally make poor decisions.

In addition to his physical injury, Lee’s ego forced him to make reckless and very poor strategic decisions. Having been successful at other battles, he came into Gettysburg with a feeling of invincibility. He knew how important a victory over the North would be for the Confederate forces, and he wanted to win — almost at all costs.

This is such an important lesson for entrepreneurs. No matter how good we think we are, we cannot ignore the reality of the situation that we are facing. Thinking that we know everything at all times is a recipe for disaster — one for which Lee’s men paid a very dear price.

Do not let illness and ego lead you to disaster. When you are ill, and when you feel as though you cannot make a mistake, remember to get as much sage advice as you can. Do not let illness and ego lead you to disaster. When you are ill, and when you feel as though you cannot make a mistake, remember to get as much sage advice as you can.

You can do this!

Jerry Osteryoung is the Jim Moran Professor of Entrepreneurship in the College of Business at Florida State University. He is also the Director of the Entrepreneurship Program at FSU and Executive Director of the Jim Moran Institute of Global Entrepreneurship. He can be reached by e-mail at jostery@comcast.net or by phone at 850-644-3372.

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