By Gene Griessman, Ph.D.
Considerable skill is required to successfully say to someone in a power position, “I want to do it my way instead of your way.”
Yet this ability is often needed by leaders at every level–whether you’re a three-star general communicating with a four-star general, a CEO with a board member or key investors, a vice president with your CEO, a teacher with your principal, or an account manager with your client.
History provides us with case studies about what you say. One of the best involves a general—in this case, General William Tecumseh Sherman—saying “I want to do it my way” to another general, and his superior General U.S. Grant.
Background information: During the Civil War, General U.S. Grant was under great pressure to wrap up his campaign against Richmond. The siege had gone on long enough, and casualties were staggering. Sherman, far away from these pressures in Georgia, had just completed his famous march to the sea, and had reached Savannah.
To gain overwhelming force against the foe in Richmond, Grant ordered Sherman to send his troops north on ships as soon as possible. Sherman, however, thought it best to capture the port city of Savannah before leaving, and then march his army north. Capturing Savannah would be a huge psychological victory for the Union cause, and marching overland instead of going by sea might take longer, but would give him an opportunity to do extensive damage to the enemy.
When Sherman learned about Grant’s priorities, instead of saying No to his superior, Sherman agreed to proceed north. But he also provided Grant with information that he hoped would change his mind.
Sherman pointed out that marching north instead of putting 60,000 troops on ships would take only two weeks longer than sailing—assuming that enough ships could be found. In today’s language, Sherman provided his superior with a benefit statement for doing it his own way.
Sherman agreed to do what he had been told. He wrote that he had “initiated measures looking principally to coming to you with 50,000 or 60,000 infantry…” Then Sherman added, almost as a footnote, “and, incidentally, to take Savannah, if time will allow.”
Grant changed his mind. Sherman then did what he had wanted to do all along. His army captured Savannah, and in a grand gesture, offered the captured city to the President as a Christmas gift. Then, Sherman marched–instead of sailing–northward.
Sherman used a technique that I have long recommended to those I coach. Whenever you communicate with someone in a superior position, begin by indicating that you are completely willing to comply with their expressed wishes.
Then as diplomatically as possible, ask if he/she would like to hear your thoughts about the best way to do it. Ask if you can push back. Usually, you’ll find that the medicine will go down easily if you begin by sincerely offering to cooperate—to obey an order. Then, and only then, do you offer your counter-idea. Expect resistance if you sound insubordinate.
Think about it. If two of the most war-hardened generals in American history found it useful to communicate with one another with respect and deference, cautious persuasion can certainly work for you, too.