BALTIMORE — If you’re looking for inspiration as a nurse exec, you might want to try going backwards, about 150 years or so, according to one noted East Coast author and leadership expert.

Steven Wiley — president of the Lincoln Leadership Institute at Gettysburg, Pa. — shared that advice with RNs Saturday afternoon, during the closing keynote of the American Organization of Nurse Executives’ Annual Meeting. He specifically pointed to the leadership of Col. Joshua Chamberlain, of the 20th Maine Volunteer Infantry Regiment, who made a key move, urging soldiers to protect the left flank during the second day of the Battle of Gettysburg.

The first three days of July 1863 alone, there were some 51,000 casualties, Wiley noted. Another 10,000 horses died those three days. It was one of the most notable battles in the history of the world, he believes, and it produced some crucial leadership lessons for the health care field and anyone else in management.

Those deaths were not unusual. There were some 10,000 individuals dying per day during the war, and no one across the country was prepared for such levels of mass chaos and casualties. “It was the greatest amount of human suffering this country has ever seen.” The Confederate Army went into Gettysburg riding an 8-0-1 winning streak, despite having less training and fewer men, supplies and resources. Leadership was what turned that disadvantage in the favor of the South, but it finally swung the other way for the Union those three days.

“Now wait a minute, Steve. Bigger, stronger, higher tech, better equipped? Those are all the elements to success. What do you think the issue might have been?” he asked the audience. “Better leadership in the smaller organization, and during the three-day battle, that leadership edge shifted.”

Wiley said every leader needs to have the nuts and bolts, more transactional behaviors that are part of their day-to-day duties — planning, organizing, coordinating, establishing rules, directing, controlling, etc. But it’s the truly great ones, like the aforementioned Col. Chamberlain, who also possessed the squishier, harder to measure “transformational” leadership attributes. Those include creating a vision, living your values, acting as a role model, building confidence in others, enabling vs. empowering and (underlined with an exclamation point) communicating.

In the U.S., about 70 percent of employees say they feel disengaged at their job, and that can swing as high as 91 percent at some federal agencies, he noted. “If you have actively disengaged employees working for you, you might as well hire terrorists and put them on the payroll. That’s how much good they’re doing for your effort and organization,” Wiley said.

More often than not, leadership is the cause of that disengagement, and specifically poor communication and an inability to build confidence and empower others. Wiley shared a couple of clips from the 1993 film Gettysburg, in which Col. Chamberlain (played by the always wonderful Jeff Daniels) demonstrated his ability to listen to his troops, instill them with confidence to make tough decisions on their own in the battle field, and stand right by their side, rather than taking a do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do approach to combat.

Wiley also placed an emphasis on the importance of leaders listening to their subordinates. To the person on the other end of a conversation, only about 7 percent of the data gathered to form an opinion comes from what we say, Wiley noted. About 38 percent of that message is our tone and volume, while 55 percent is our physiology — posture, demeanor, expression and appearance. “Ninety-three percent of the message they use as data to come up with an opinion of us has nothing to do with what we say, but we’ll spend entire careers” trying to obsess over what word to use to get our message across.

Wiley closed by urging nurse leaders to ask themselves four questions to help determine their own leadership styles:

  1. How do you get your way (are you direct or indirect)?
  2. How do you respond to people?
  3. How do you pace activity in your daily life?
  4. And how do you manage details in your life?

Figure out where you stand, and then determine how you can “stretch your style” to better serve the colleagues and patients that matter most (or the mutineers, in Chamberlain’s case).

“Thank you for what it is you do, and remember leadership is not about us and what we want, what we need, what we get and how we feel about it,” he said in closing. “It’s what the patients, it’s what the colleagues, it’s what the mutineers in our lives want.”