[August 12, 2017] In 1776 General George Washington feared the superior British Navy might blockade New York City, isolating it from communications with other territory of the American Colonies. Yet when British General William Howe attacked and destroyed the Americans at Gowanus Pass in Brooklyn Heights, he failed to follow-up by storming the Patriot redoubts. This allowed the Colonial Army’s leadership to escape. Good leadership means, of course, not missing opportunities.
“Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work.” – Thomas A. Edison, American inventor and businessman
Washington was correct that such an attack would sever the rebellious colonies and allow their piecemeal destruction. At the battle, the Americans suffered a loss of 1,000 casualties which would be difficult to train and replace. General Howe, on the other hand, failed to follow the advice of his subordinates and purposefully did not press the attack to wipe out the Colonial Army’s leadership; including George Washington himself. Doing so would have ended the rebellion then and there.
One of theLeaderMaker’s guest bloggers, Sadako Red, wrote about missed opportunities that senior media and political leaders failed to take in 2014 after the killing of an unarmed black teenager by a white policeman. Red wrote that the “decline of our media’s honesty” and its “decades-long tumble into partisanship and insincerity” is one of the main reasons they miss so many superb opportunities to have open and honest discussions on race and gender issues (see link here).
Whether it be Yahoo!’s rejection of Mark Zuckerberg’s Facebook buyout, Decca Records’ refusal to sign on The Beatles singing group, General George Meade not pursuing and destroying Robert Lee’s army after the Battle of Gettysburg, or France’s army not invading Germany in 1939 when the latter’s entire army was invading Poland … missed opportunities abound. Hindsight is always 20-20 but it takes an excellent leader to recognize and take opportunities with foresight.
The failure of leaders, however, is less often a failure to miss a single major opportunity but the failure to seize on many smaller ones that would make a long-term positive difference to achieve their mission. Good leaders, often misguided by ideology, prejudices, and biases, frequently miss the chance to make decisions that would be to their advantage.
British General Howe decision to forego a single attack on a small Continental Army redoubt was one of the greatest missed opportunities in the history of warfare. Leaders who study leadership are right to review the failures of history’s great leaders for exactly that reason.
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