Chamberlain: an example for everyone



An imperfection that holds you back. It’s with you every day. And you have to decide what to do with it. If you’re this person, the issue of leadership may be the furthest thing from your mind. You’re simply trying to get through the day. I’d like to share the story of a leader who dealt with this reality. If you’re interested in the Civil War, you’ll know the name. If you don’t have the interest, stay with me. The story is intriguing. Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain was a famous Union Army officer in the Civil War. Looking back, we credit him with amazing instinctive decisions, such as at the Battle of Gettysburg in 1863 when he and a handful of soldiers held off a powerful attack by Confederate forces. His dramatic service on that day is told in the historical novel “Killer Angels” and depicted in the movie “Gettysburg.“ The actor Jeff Daniels played Chamberlain in a stirring perfomance. But war isn’t what I want you to know about Chamberlain. There’s something else. It’s the barrier. From early childhood, Chamberlain suffered from a speech impediment.

Particular letters were impossible for him to pronounce, their sounds difficult for him to make. It was a problem everyone noticed. Chamberlain worked ferociously to defeat it. He read aloud to himself—over and over again—to pound down the problem. Month after month, year after year, Chamberlain chipped away at the impediment. When he entered Bowdoin College in Maine, Chamberlain focused his studies on religion and theology.

Preaching and lecturing were at the root of his academic work and the future in front of him. All despite his ongoing problems with speech. Chamberlain went on to become a professor of—wait for it—rhetoric, or the study a and mastery of speaking and oral logic. He became a popular college instructor at Bowdoin. And again, all of it set against his difficulties with speech. Amazing. But we’re not done yet.

There’s a bigger point to make.

When Chamberlain volunteered for service in the Union Army in 1862, he started as a regimental officer and, over time, rose to the rank of general. Astoundingly, much of Chamberlain’s leadership in the military revolved around his ability to speak effectively. In crucial situations, in the minutes before battle, for example, he depended on communicating to his men in speeches and also improvised remarks. His words were stirring, eloquent, graceful, and perhaps most important, understandable to soldiers from all walks of life. The man who couldn’t speak well became the leader who communicated beautifully