The Lessons of Custer: Five Things to Consider on “Bad Management Day”

Once upon a time, I made the case we should celebrate June 25 as “Bad Management Day,” a day when we reflect on all the terrible management decisions made by the many overpaid egomaniacs who wouldn’t know what management was if it walked up and bit ’em

Why June 25?

It’s because June 25, 2016 is the 140th anniversary of one of the worst management decisions of all time.

On June 25, 1876, Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer made a fateful management decision to split his forces and engage an overwhelmingly superior force of more than 2,500 Lakota Sioux, Cheyenne and Arapaho warriors with only about 210 members of the 7th U.S. Cavalry along the Little Bighorn River in what is now southeastern Montana.

Custer’s five bad decisions

History is made of such decisions, and so it was for Custer, who paid dearly for his. He paid with his life — and the lives of two of his brothers, a nephew, a brother-in-law, and all those under his command — in an engagement long remembered as the Battle of the Little Bighorn, or “Custer’s Last Stand.”

Giving your life is the ultimate price for a bad decision, but Custer’s decision-making was especially poor in a number of different ways.

George Armstrong Custer
George Armstrong Custer
  1. He refused to listen to others, believing that his judgment was superior. Custer was ordered to hold off on any attack and to wait for reinforcements that were being led by Brig. Gen. Alfred Terry, but impatience got the better of him and Custer foolishly decided to act. Waiting would have been more sensible, because Gen. Terry and his troops arrived two days later, on June 27.
  2. He was arrogant. Custer was guilty of being overconfident in his own abilities, and guilty of hubris, just like so many modern executives. He grossly underestimated the number of Indians facing him, pooh-poohed their abilities, and failed to consider the many advantages his opponent had. Here’s a big one: While Custer’s troops were generally armed with single-shot rifles, the Indians had a number of repeating rifles that made their superior numbers even more so. Less hubris and ego might have helped Custer have a healthier respect of what he was facing.
  3. He wasn’t entirely focused on the job at hand. Custer’s focus wasn’t on fighting and defeating the Indians who were itching to fight him at the Little Bighorn. His misguided concern was that he needed to trap them and prevent their escape. That’s why he split his forces into three parts, diluting his overall strength. The other two units of the 7th Cavalry, led by Capt. Frederick Benteen and Maj. Marcus Reno, survived a fierce two-day fight that ended when Gen. Terry and his reinforcements arrived.
  4. He was outmaneuvered by an opponent who executed a perfect strategy. Custer was facing wily Indian leader Sitting Bull, who lured him into a fight on his timetable, on a field of his choosing, and with a much larger (and superior) force. In addition, Sitting Bull delegated well. He trusted in Crazy Horse, his able field lieutenant, who executed his battle plan perfectly.
  5. He had terribly bad luck. It’s often said that luck is when preparation and opportunity meet, and that was certainly true for Sitting Bull and his forces at the Battle of the Little Bighorn. The other side of that coin is that Custer had the terrible misfortune of deciding to attack what is still considered to be the single largest force of Native American warriors ever assembled on the North American continent, and he did it with an undersized and outgunned cavalry unit that he split into three parts.

A management formula: More patience, less hubris

On top of that, the Indian forces were passionate about what they were doing. They were defending their turf and felt they had something to prove. Custer’s cavalry, on the other hand, was tired of chasing Indians around the northern Plains and just wanted to get home. They had very little passion for fighting at all.custer

Add all of that up and what you get is not just bad decision-making by Custer, but also terribly poor luck as well.

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So it goes for bad managers, it seems.

Change just a few of these elements, and perhaps invest Custer with less hubris and more patience, and maybe he would have never fought the Battle of the Little Bighorn and lived to fight another day. Who knows? But, history would likely be very different if any of that happened.

These are all good things to consider on Bad Management Day. Had George Armstrong Custer thought like a manager and made better decisions, and had he not been driven so completely by his oversized ego, he might have survived and perhaps eventually run for president as many expected.

And one more thing: Sometimes, there’s a fine line between winning and losing, between success and failure (or in Custer’s case, total disaster). Keep that in mind as you reflect on Bad Management Day.

Want more on Custer and the Battle of the Little Bighorn? The definitive account, in my view, is Evan S. Connell’s 1997 book, Son of the Morning Star.

John Hollon is Editor-at-Large at ERE Media and was the founding Editor of TLNT.com. A longtime newspaper, magazine, and business journal editor, John has deep roots in the talent management space. He's the former Editor of Workforce Management magazine and workforce.com, served as Editor of RecruitingDaily, and was Vice President for Content at HR technology firm Checkster. An award-winning journalist, John has written extensively about HR, talent management, leadership, and smart business practices, including for the popular Fistful of Talent blog. Contact him at johnhollon@ere.net, connect with him on LinkedIn, or follow him on Twitter @johnhollon.

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7 Comments on “The Lessons of Custer: Five Things to Consider on “Bad Management Day”

  1. The real tragedy is that one was an invading army and the other was trying to save their land from the invaders.

    1. Whatever, Kwame. Cry me a river. No, not really. If the Indians had actually developed as a culture, like the Chinese, instead of chucking spears and shooting arrows, they would not have been rolled over like they were. It appears the native American managers made some really bad decisions prior to this.

  2. The real tragedy is that one was an invading army and the other was trying to save their land from the invaders.

    1. Whatever, Kwame. Cry me a river. No, not really. If the Indians had actually developed as a culture, like the Chinese, instead of chucking spears and shooting arrows, they would not have been rolled over like they were. It appears the native American managers made some really bad decisions prior to this.

  3. You do know why Custer didn’t wait for Terry, right? From a promontory known as the Crow’s Nest, Custer observed a band of Indians on the run. This, and the fact that a party of his men sent back to retrieve a lost box of hardtack had gotten into a gunfight with Indians a few hours before, caused him to believe that he had been spotted. He knew that if the Indians knew he was there, they would scatter, and the army would have to chase them down for months at great cost. He attacked, which, based on the information he had, was the best tactical decision he could have made in the circumstances. And he divided his forces because it had worked in the past. At the Battle of Washita, in 1868, Custer divided his forces and attacked the camp of Cheyenne chief Black Kettle. It was Custer’s greatest western victory. One must understand that he was judging the situation based on what was going on and what had worked in the past. He was, however, guilty of ignoring his scouts. But he was not the only one who may have made bad decisions: Major Reno, commander of one of the battalions, stopped his charge before he made it into the village, dismounted, and formed a skirmish line. I will not, however, fault Benteen for not moving to support Custer from Weir point. If he went any further than he did, their would likely be 400 names etched on that monument.

  4. Mr. Hollon, I would be willing to bet, never served in the military, or if he did, he never served in combat. Commanders like General George Patton, General Colin Powell, General (President) Eisenhower, General Schwarzkopf, right down to a Second Lt. will tell you that management decisions are made at places like the Pentagon but once the firefight, or battle begins all that goes right out the window and you respond to the battle as it develops. Even at West Point, instructor tell Cadets that they must learn to make decisions based on what is happening around them, and at all times if available, seek the high ground. Why? Because that give you an overall prospective of what is being thrown at you.
    Custer was given orders to prevent the hostiles from splitting into groups and running away in different directions. On the morning of the 25 of June, Custer was awakened and told that Indians had found backpacks that had fallen by the wayside from the pack train. Fearing that the hostiles knew he was in the area and would take off in different directions. That is why he decided to attack. There had never been that many Indians gathered in one place either before or since, he had no way of guessing or knowing that almost seven thousand Indians were at the Little Bighorn. Why did he split his forces into three battalions? That was the standard Calvary tactic that had been developed at the start of the Civil War and had proven effective throughout the Indian Wars. Also, Custer did not rise to the rank of (Brevet) Major General during the Civil War because he was made bad decisions or because of bad management. His actions at Gettysburg, for example, defeating another great cavalry commander, J.E.B. Stuart and which turned the entire battle from a Confederates victory to a Union victory. Custer was chosen because of his command decisions to not only be the officer to accept the white flag from General Robert E.Lee, but one of only a handful of Union Officers invited to witness Lee signing the papers that ended the Civil War. Does not sound like someone who can be made bad “Management Decisions” but more of a scapegoat by someone who did little or no research about what occurred on 25 June 1886.
    Mr. Hollon based his remarks on one book, and that was not a very good book about what occurred on 25 June. I spent over five years researching the battle, including instructor who teach military history and tactic at West Point, relatives of warriors who fought in the battle, including Sitting Bulls great grandson, and I have walked over the battle site numerous times in preparing for my soon to be released book, A Short Ride to Glory (A Long Ride to Hell) (c) 2018 All Rights Reserved. My book is not about Custer but about the lone trooper who survived the battle and whose account of the fight has only recently been discovered and accepted by historians and scholars, not to mention the History Channel.
    Mr. Hollon’s remarks go more toward bad management decisions by not knowing what he was talking about and not being more careful in making decisions based on a Hollywood movie.

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