Despite far superior numbers, in the early stages of the Civil War, the Union Army of the Potomac continued to lose battles to the better led Confederate Army of Northern Virginia.
Author Jeff Shaara’s best-selling historical fiction, Gods and Generals, highlights the Union Army’s inadequate leadership. In the winter of 1862 the newly appointed head of the Federal army, General Burnside, had a plan:
“to abandon the pursuit of Lee’s army through central Virginia, and instead make a sudden surprise move to the left, to the southeast, along the Rappahannock River, crossing below Lee’s army, placing the Federal Army between Lee and Richmond. Burnside assured the President that this would bring a speedy end to the war, as Richmond would fall before Lee could react. The place he chose to make the crossing was the town of Fredericksburg.” (Gods and Generals, pg 275)
The plan was sound and in fact likely would have caught the rebels by surprise. Unfortunately for the Union, communication obviously being different in the era, the pontoons needed to cross the river were left behind and the army could not cross. We are told of officers wanting to deviate from the plan and send a small group of soldiers wading across the river. This force, while smaller, would ensure the strategic ground would be taken and used to their advantage, not against them:
“Couch said, ‘General Burnside, if we cannot cross the river very soon, I am confident that General Lee will make every effort to impede our movement to do so. I feel fairly confident that he will also make great efforts to prevent us from moving toward Richmond. We do not know the disposition of General Jackson’s forces, and we could find them on our flanks if we move on toward Richmond prematurely. It is important, sir, that we make some attempt to gain even a small advantage by occupying the town, and possibly the heights beyond. Allow me, sir, to send at least General Hancock’s division across the river. Surely, they can carry enough supplies with them, and the artillery from this side can protect them from any aggression by Lee –‘
Burnside raised his hand, cutting him off, still smiled. ‘Gentleman, please, we have beaten this to death. We will cross the river when the bridges arrive, not before. You must understand, I do not have the luxury of deviating from the larger plan.’” (Gods and Generals, pg 281) Emphasis mine.
The Union’s strict adherence to their plan allowed Lee time to move his army unimpeded into the very heights causing the Federals concern. Capturing the high ground, Lee’s men were able to fortify their positions and prepare to take on the Federal Army despite being significantly outnumbered.
An estimated 120,000 Union troops stormed Robert E. Lee’s rebel army of only 70,000 at the battle of Fredericksburg. The North Commander’s inability to adapt and adjust his plans ensured what should have been a strategic victory became another embarrassing defeat. The entrenched rebels massacred their northern opponents and the legend of Lee grew to new heights.
The lives lost at the battle of Fredericksburg showcase an extreme example of something I’ve seen regularly in financial planning. Plans too rigid can be catastrophic. There is a natural tendency for us to think everything will go “according to plan”. Life rarely cooperates.
For this reason, I try to help clients focus on establishing discipline and creating good financial habits more so than adhering to strict guardrails in the financial plans we create. While an understanding of the objectives and goals is paramount, the discipline taken to get there is really what will drive success.
Discipline, in spending less than we make. Discipline, in avoiding credit card debt. Discipline, by investing early. Discipline, in taking steps to progress in our careers and earn more money.
Discipline does not deprive or inhibit. When used correctly to achieve our “why”, discipline empowers.
US Navy Seal and author, Jocko Willink, outlines this well in the last chapter of Extreme Ownership:
“Instead of making us more rigid and unable to improvise, this discipline actually made us more flexible, more adaptable, and more efficient. It allowed us to be creative. When we wanted to change plans midstream on an operation, we didn’t have to recreate an entire plan. We had the freedom to work within the framework of our disciplined procedures. All we had to do was link them together and explain whatever small portion of the plan had changed. When we wanted to mix and match fire teams, squads, and even platoons, we could do so with ease since each element operated with the same fundamental procedures. Last, and perhaps most important, when things went wrong and the fog of war set in, we fell back on our disciplined procedures to carry us through the toughest challenges on the battlefield.” (pg 273)
Plans are powerful in setting structure and a path to pursue, but to be effective they need to be able to adapt to changing circumstances. One day you can be saving for a house, and the next, that money might be needed to take care of unexpected twins. Life might not always provide the pontoons you need to easily navigate. By establishing a strong and disciplined foundation, you will give yourself flexibility. Flexibility provides you the ability to adapt your plan to changing circumstances and maneuver through the twists and turns inevitably ahead of you.
If you are ready to establish your flexible plan to building wealth, please give us a call. We look forward to helping.