Seize the High Ground!
More than 2,000 years ago, the philosopher Aristotle said, “It concerns us to know the purposes we seek in life, for then, like archers aiming at a definite mark, we shall be more likely to attain what we want.” Walking through valleys, heads bowed down under the crushing weight of our daily burdens, it can be difficult to “know the purposes we seek.” The many demands of modern life can prevent us from ascending to higher ground, where from crests along our journey, we can see farther and more clearly.
In Sun Tzu’s The Art of War, he emphasizes the importance of taking the high ground in battle. Taking and holding the high ground offers a military commander the advantage of having a broader field of view. From the high ground, the leader can see a fuller range of possibilities that lead to victory. And from an elevated position, the leader can get greater range out of the weapons at hand.
The high ground was the key terrain that shaped the Battle of Gettysburg during three bloody days in July 1863. On June 30, Union Brigadier General John Buford rode into Gettysburg and instantly sized up the significance of holding the high ground south of the town. In the 1993 film Gettysburg, based on Michael Shaara’s novel The Killer Angels, Sam Elliott playing the role of Buford, observed:
Whole damn Reb army's gonna be here. They'll move through this town, occupy these hills on the other side, and when our people get here Lee'll have the high ground, and there'll be the devil to pay! The high ground! Meade'll come in slowly, cautiously, new to command. They'll be on his back from Washington. Wires hot with messages. "Attack! Attack!" So he will set up a ring around these hills. And when Lee's army is all nicely entrenched behind fat rocks on the high ground, Meade'll finally attack, if he can coordinate the army. Straight up the hillside, out in the open, in that gorgeous field of fire. We will charge valiantly... and be butchered valiantly! And afterwards, men in tall hats and gold watch fobs will thump their chests and say what a brave charge it was.
Fearing this outcome, Buford acted decisively on July 1, deploying his cavalry division in defensive positions to slow the advance of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia. He bought time for the Union army to seize the high ground and therefore the advantage. The next day on July 2, Union Colonel Joshua Chamberlain and his 20th Maine Volunteer Infantry Regiment would use the high ground at Little Round Top to repel multiple Confederate attacks. Out of ammunition and fearing a subsequent attack that could have turned the left flank of the Union line, Chamberlain launched a pivotal, downhill bayonet charge that secured the victory.
Chamberlain’s defense of the high ground at Little Round Top was animated by an abiding purpose. It was the same purpose that motivated him to move from being a college professor to serving as a soldier — freedom. In the film Gettysburg, just prior to securing the high ground of Little Round Top, Chamberlain, played by Jeff Daniels, seizes the high moral ground in his remarks to his troops:
This is a different kind of army. If you look back through history, you will see men fighting for pay, for women, for some other kind of loot. They fight for land, power, because a king leads them or -- or just because they like killing. But we are here for something new. This has not happened much in the history of the world. We are an army out to set other men free.
What is your high ground to seize and hold? What is your purpose? How can you free yourself from the tyranny of the urgent and ascend to higher ground where you have a broader view? And how do you ensure your time, talent and treasure are leveraged to greater effect in winning what you value most?
Aristotle has an answer: “At the intersection where your gifts, talents, and abilities meet a human need; therein you will discover your purpose.” By placing our strengths at the service of others, we find meaning. But I would add an additional element to Aristotle’s formulation. The sweet spot of meaningful purpose is found where our greatest strengths and values meet our corner of the world’s greatest needs.
Our strengths are probably readily apparent to us. We’ve likely been complimented about them throughout our lives. And the needs that surround us among our family, friends and colleagues may also be readily apparent when we step off the treadmill and look around. But how do we clarify the values we hold dear?
Begin with the end. Picture your grave marker, etched with your dates of birth and death, connected by a dash that represents the totality of your life. How are you living your dash? What would you want your eulogy to say? Over many years, the last stanza in Linda Ellis’ poem, The Dash, continues to strike me: “So when your eulogy is being read, with your life’s actions to rehash, would you be proud of the things they say about how you lived your dash?”
My first “dash” reflection arrived in my late 20’s, when cancer forced me to step off the treadmill. When surgery failed, and chemotherapy rendered me couch-bound, my forced exile from the pressures of daily life gave me time and space to ascend from the valley. Family and friends supported me while on the journey. Contemplating my mortality, and using the walking sticks of prayer, scripture and other wisdom literature, I steadily climbed until reaching a crest. And from that perch I more clearly saw what I had been missing while toiling in the valley below. I had not been investing in my declared values of faith, family and friendship. My restlessness in daily life was born from a failure to serve a cause higher than my own self-interest. As I continue my journey towards the summit, I move forward with the conviction to invest in the human needs that surround me.
And this is why I have founded GuideQuest, to partner with leaders on that quest for ever higher ground and more meaningful purpose.
Lead a legacy!
5/12/2020 07:39:43 pm
I am the son of Bill Pryor and he recommended to me that I subscribe to your blog. He holds you in high regard as someone from whom I should learn. I look forward to your guidance. Best, Will
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