What You Say In A Letter (Or In Person) When You Give An Order But Don’t Want It To Sound Like An Order
by Gene Griessman, Ph.D.
We here at Whatyousay.com believe that history can provide excellent lessons for leaders today. We found a terrific letter that Abraham Lincoln wrote to General William Tecumseh Sherman that demonstrates how to give an order without it’s sounding like an order. (It’s also an effective delegation technique if you are delegating to someone who’s savvy, someone who is able, as they say, to read between the lines.)
Here’s the setting. A Congressional election was scheduled for October 1864 . Everyone understood that this election would determine the outcome of the Civil War, and the vote of soldiers was critical. Some states permitted soldiers in the field to cast absentee ballots, but all-important Indiana did not. Indiana’s governor and its congressional delegation requested the administration to grant brief furloughs for the men to return home and vote.
This is what Lincoln wrote to General Sherman, whose army was in Georgia:
“The state election of Indiana occurs on the 11th of October, and the loss of it to the friends of the Government would go far towards losing the whole Union cause.
Indiana is the only important state, voting in October, whose soldiers cannot vote in the field.
Any thing you can safely do to let her soldiers, or any part of them, go home and vote at the State election, will be greatly in point. They need not remain for the Presidential election, but may return to you at once.
This is in no sense an order, but is intended merely to impress you with the importance, to the army itself, of your doing all you safely can, yourself being the judge of what you can safely do.” (Italics added by editor.)
Lincoln as commander in chief had the Constitutional right to issue an order, but it would have set off a political firestorm. So Lincoln chose his words carefully, no doubt hoping that Sherman would be shrewd enough to know what Lincoln meant, and that he would be convinced that this was the thing to do. (Lincoln had already had to deal with a top general named George McClellan who famously lacked this quality.)
Here are four lessons that Lincoln’s letter can teach today’s leaders.
One. Make it clear that the task you are proposing is something you really care about. Lincoln was a master at linking local tactics with a larger purpose, which is strategic thinking at its best.
Two. Tell why the requested action is important. The other party may not see what is obvious to you.
Three. Show that you understand the situation. Lincoln emphasized that Sherman should not put his army at risk, and used the word “safely” three times.
Four. State that you are not giving an “order.” If the other party thinks he has a real choice in the matter, you probably should ask yourself whether this individual is the best person for the job. People who are too dense to understand subtlety may be lacking in other areas as well.
How did it all turn out? General Sherman was concerned about sending any of his troops home, but he was just as astute as Lincoln thought he was. He complied with the President’s “request,” but made a point of permitting “wounded” soldiers to return to vote, a lot of them.
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