The Meaning of Responsibilityby Andrew P. O’Meara, Jr., United States Army, Retired
The following observations on inspirational leadership are excerpted from remarks delivered at a graduation ceremony at the Armor School in November 1982.
In the 18th Century Lord St. Vincent observed that responsibility is the test of a man’s courage. One of the finest examples of courage and capacity to accept responsibility was provided by Robert E. Lee in July 1863 at Gettysburg. The Confederate attack on the Union Center on 3 July 1963 – known as Pickett’s charge – was composed of three divisions of nine brigades. The divisions were commanded by Pickett, Pettigrew and Trimble.Their combined forces numbered 11,000 men. They were joined by Wilcox’s and Lane’s brigades, bringing the total number of men in the attack to 12,500 men.
The attack was intended to penetrate the center of the Union position. Sixty percent of the attacking force was lost in the attack. Thirty of the thirty-eight regimental flags that came within musket range of the stone wall that marked the Union position were captured. Prior to the attack, the Confederate campaign was recognized as a major threat to Washington. The Confederate States of America were at high tide. The Union cause and its Army under Meade’s command were in grave danger.
As the tide broke and the survivors returned in disorder across the wide valley separating the two armies, Lee’s Army, the Army of Northern Virginia, was now in serious danger. The roles of the two forces were reversed. The attacker now ran a serious risk of being destroyed on Northern soil. More than an attack had failed. The cause of the Confederacy had taken a turn for the worse from which it would never recover. Lee’s hopes had been high as he invaded Maryland and Pennsylvania. He anticipated victory as the soldiers of Pickett’s, Pettigrew’s and Trimble’s Division assaulted Cemetery Hill. He observed the attack and saw it break against the union center. He moved among the survivors as they streamed back across the valley. He understood the meaning of their failure to break through the Union center. His words help us to understand the meaning of the word responsibility.
Lee met General Pickett with these words, “General Pickett, place your Division in rear of this hill and be ready to repel the advance of the enemy should they follow up their advantage.” Pickett answered tearfully, “General Lee, I have no Division now; Armistead is down, Garnett is down and Kemper is mortally wounded.” “Come, General Pickett,” Lee responded. “This has been my fight, and upon my shoulders rests the blame. The men and officers of your command have written the name of Virginia as high today as it has ever been written before…. Your men have done all that men can do. The fault is entirely my own.” His words later to Wilcox reiterated his total acceptance of responsibility. “It is I who have lost this fight and you must help me out of it the best way you can.”
Responsibility means total acceptance of the men we lead. Their victories are theirs. Their failure is ours – the men who lead them. This is the price of leadership.