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Adapt to your Environment

  • Published
  • By Col. Brett Cusker
  • 379th Air Expeditionary Wing director of staff
Deployed operations are intense. Leaders at every level must adapt to mission demands quickly to produce consistent, effective, and sustainable combat and combat support capability despite the challenges of building a cohesive team from individuals who have never worked together, high turn-over and unfamiliar surroundings.

Our deployed environment tests leaders to rapidly build trust and confidence in their commanders, supervisors, peers and subordinates alike. Once earned, this trust and confidence is routinely tested. The ability to maintain trust and confidence no matter the circumstance is the true art of leadership at all levels.

Some leaders succeed no matter the task or environment. Others struggle. As a kid growing up in Montana, I was fascinated by the story of Lt. Col. George A. Custer, one of the most studied leaders in American military history. His success as a Civil War leader is epic. His only defeat on June 26th, 1876, at the Battle of the Little Bighorn in South Central Montana, is equally renowned. So what happened, and what can we learn from this piece of American military history that is relevant still today?

Custer’s Civil War success started early and got him noticed. Robert Utley, author of “Cavalier in Buckskin,” summarized Custer’s relevance when he wrote, “He knew what the general needed to know, when to get it and how to report it, clearly and concisely.” As a result, Custer was given great authority to command. His obligation to the Union cause required him to build a credible capability from a volunteer and conscripted force, and lead his fledgling Union cavalry into close combat with the enemy. He routinely faced situations of uncertainty and complexity where creativity, adaptability, critical thinking and independent, rapid decision making, were essential elements. He excelled in the complexity of battle, demonstrating both competence and confidence when confronted with ambiguity. Maj. James Kidd, one of Custer’s subordinate officers, summarized Custer’s impact, “…under him, a man is ashamed to be cowardly. Under him our men can achieve wonders.”

Custer always seemed to be in the right place at the right time, leading attacks and compelling soldiers to accomplish the near impossible just by his mere presence. His personality, fearlessness and innate ability to do the right thing, at the right time, as Gen. Nelson Miles put it, “Custer’s Luck,” carried him through. Custer was a difference maker on the battlefield, a natural warrior-leader who seemed poised for certain future success. Custer was the right man for the job during the Civil War. However, Custer did not adapt well to the culturally complex environment he faced later.

Custer was a command failure after the Civil War. His post-war assignments in Louisiana, Texas, and Kansas were disasters. He went from being the leader whom everyone wanted to serve under to the commander everyone hated. He did not establish his right to lead and thus never gained relevance. He did not understand his new environment, and was not comfortable being subjected to scrutiny. His challenges included the poor quality of soldiers who served post war, poor provisioning, and most of all, himself. To be sure, his men were the lowest of the low, often referred to as, “men of the last resort.” But, as a leader who knew he would have to take his men into combat, he failed to remedy shortcomings through good steward leadership and was unprepared to prioritize what he did have. His personality, prior experience, belief in his infallibility and reputation, inflated his belief that he could personally manipulate outcomes regardless of his unit combat readiness and cohesiveness.

Custer’s downward spiral led to a court martial after he was accused of leaving his command while on a campaign and for unethical behavior in dealings with soldiers. He left the Army with a tarnished reputation in 1867, but was given the opportunity to redeem himself when General Sheridan re-named him commander of the 7th Cavalry prior to the “Indian” Campaigns of 1868. This new command promised him some of the glory days of the past. He was quoted as saying, “I am to be my own master as General Sheridan trusts to my judgment.”

Despite his initial post-Civil War failings, Custer had seen some success prior to the Battle of the Little Big Horn, and had almost ten years of experience fighting Native Americans by then. He considered himself a competent “Indian” fighter, but he never built the kind of command climate he had been known for during the Civil War and had not established the trust and confidence in his men that he needed. Had he done so, his men would have helped Custer reconsider his attack against Sitting Bull. Instead, he disregarded advice from his most trusted scouts and was dealing with serious dissention within his officer leadership. In the end, his inability to adapt to post-war realities, coupled with leadership inadequacies and his failure to build a cohesive team cost him his life, and the lives of the men of the 7th Cav. “Custer’s Luck” had run out.

Custer’s legacy provides a great case study of leadership. Custer’s experience proves that leaders must be adept in adapting to changes in environment and continuously build trust and confidence at all levels, no matter the circumstance, in order to accomplish their mission. Are you up to the challenge?