Within a short 60-minutes some 226 US soldiers has been massacred by the Indians. The latter had over 1,500 warriors and had more reliable and effective Winchester rifles. Ambrose (1996) rightly notes that the ‘Battle of Little Bighorn’ is arguably the most written about military event in American history which is quite something!
From my very own experience, it is fair to say that I have met three leaders that remind me of General Custer over the last 16- years of working as a Work/Business Psychologist. Recently, I have been reflecting on what leadership insights we might gain from re-examining General Custer from a Work Psychology perspective. By way of methodology I have adopted the type of discourse analysis as advocated by Parker & Pavon-Cuellar (2014). In this way I have completed a short intensive research review and consequently completed an analysis of the key themes. Lastly, I mapped these across to psychological evidence-base.
Up front and central I’d like to argue or construct a view of Custer as embodying the psychological ‘dark triad’. This is a ‘diabolical trinity’ of three key personality constructs, namely:-
- Narcissism which can be witnessed by pride, egotism, a lack of empathy and grandiosity.
- Machiavellianism which is characterised by the exploitation and manipulation of others for one’s own ends and a strong motivation and focus on one’s own self-interest. This also includes tactics such as deception, lying and lack of moral values
- Psychopathology which can be witnessed by anti-social behaviour, impulsivity, callousness and a lack of remorse.
You will notice that although these three components are conceptually ‘teased apart’ in practice they overlap. I have noticed in at least two clients that these components seem to ‘spark off’ one another. Lastly, each component has a statistical normal distribution. That is to say, a less ‘acute’ type can be found in non-clinical settings such as the workplace. This resonates with Lowen (1985) in his first-class and very accessible book on Narcissism has found a similar pattern.
“In years long numbered with the past, when I was merging upon manhood, my every thought was ambitious- not to be wealthy, not to be learned, but to be great. I desired to link my name with acts and men in such a manner as to be a mark of honor, not only to the present, but also to future generations.
“The largest Indian camp on the North American continent is ahead and I am going to attack it”
Both quotations from George Armstrong Custer, 1867.
OK let’s take a look at Custer’s narcissism. Firstly, we have the display component. For example during battle he would ride on a white horse; whereas his troopers would be on black horses as a key differential in terms of the positional display of power, authority, as well as the visual impact signifying difference and the element of deferral. Perhaps a modern equivalent would be a very expressive ‘executive’ car. Andrist (2001) states that he was “greedy for fame” and many commentators (e.g. Kershaw, 2005) have noted how he enjoyed making public speeches- primarily about himself and his successful campaigns to date (see Macnab, 2003).
It is also fascinating to note that Custer frequently invited correspondents to accompany him on his campaigns to report on his military skills and prowess. It is also sad to note that two of them lost their lives at his ‘Last Stand’.
Ambrose (1996) noted that within the U.S. Army Custer was described as being a vain, self-seeking and glory-wanting individual. Andrist (2001) believes that Custer was photographed more than any other Civil War officer; which from a narcissist frame of reference literally speaks volumes!
Custer also loved dressing very flamboyantly. He often wore or ‘sported’ a uniform that included shiny boots, tight olive trousers, a tight hussar jacket of black velveteen with silver on the sleeves, a sailor shirt with silver stars on his collar, and a red cravat. To ‘top it off’ he was had a wide brimmed slouch hat, and styled his hair in ringlets with cinnamon scented hair oil. Quite the image!
“Hurrah boys, we’ve got them! We’ll finish them up and then go home to our station.”
Next, let’s briefly explore some of the ways by which Custer was a Machiavellian Connell (1997) reports that many of his peer-group saw Custer as someone that “really wanted to be seen as important but not caring how he got there.”
Connell (1997) reports how during the course of his military career Custer was prone to disobey orders, as well as openly criticize those senior to him in the military hierarchy. For example, he charged the Secretary of War of ‘hypocrisy’ saying that they were signing treaties with the Indians with one hand and them killing them with the other.
Custer also had the classic Machiavellian tendency ‘show-off’ to those in positions of authority/power when it was the right time to do so when seeking his own shameless self-promotion and vain ambitions. One of the most telling examples is when on May 24, 1862 General Barnard and his senior staff were assessing a potential crossing point on the Chickahominy River. Custer was waiting for his ‘moment’ so when General Bardnard said to his team “I wish I knew how deep it was”…with that Custer gently wiped his horse and rode- out to the middle of the river and shouted victoriously “That’s how deep it is, Mr General”.
What unfolds next is very important for our interpretive purposes as Custer was consequently given permission to lead a successful attack across the River and this resulted in the capture of over 50 Confederates. Following this successful campaign, he is also then personally congratulated for his gallantry by the General.
These details are psychologically relevant as this set-up the ‘reward’ frame of reference for the type of ‘heroics’ that Custer was in far too desperate need for. Of course, this deep-seated need for achievement and recognition was a classic ‘double-edged sword’ and would lead to his demise along with his brothers Thomas Custer and Boston Custer who died with him along with his brother-in-law, James Calhoun, and nephew, Henry Armstrong Reed.
“They tell me I murdered Custer. It is a lie. He was a fool and rode to his death” (Chief Sitting Bull).
For me the most telling psychopathological moment is back in 1866. By way of context the western frontier was conflict ridden. Unaccustomed to the tactics of the Cheyenne and Arapaho, Custer spent months fruitlessly chasing after elusive bands of warriors. At one point, he became so frustrated that he abandoned his command and dashed 150 miles in 55 hours just to spend one day with his wife.
For this insubordination and deserting his post the records state that he was court-marital and consequently suspended from the Army for a year. However, General Philip Sheridan came to his rescue and recalled him to lead a winter campaign against the Cheyenne. In a bloody dawn attack along the Washita River in 1868, Custer and his men killed 103 Indians. The records demonstrate that very few were in actual fact were warriors. Tellingly the majority were women, young children and old men. Custer demonstrated neither mercy, nor compassion nor any element of empathy. This was a massacre!
As time progressed Custer noted that the military culture turned a blind eye to some of his more brutal methods of ‘leadership’. As with all mavericks this was mainly because he ‘delivered results’. Unfortunately, given his personality problems Custer became extremely ruthless. For example, it is reported that on at least three occasions when he was challenged by subordinates he did not hesitate to kill them for ‘insubordination’. There was no room for any ‘critical friends’ in his psychological space.
I would argue that Custer’s lack of empathy was one of the factors which meant that he rejected help from new technologies and instead relied too heavily on his own military skills and methods. He outright rejected the Gatling gun. Next his forced his men to use single-shot Springfields, whilst the Indians used much more reliable and effected Winchester rifles.
On the day of the battle, Custer divided his 600-man command in the face of vastly superior numbers into three battalions. Thus, the refusal of an extra battalion reduced the size of his force by at least a sixth, and then rejecting the firepower offered by the Gatling guns played into the events of June 25 to the disadvantage of his regiment.
To be fair, prior to the ‘Battle of Little Bighorn’ Custer had experienced some measure of campaign success. But he ascribed this more to his own method of the ‘Custer chase’ which relied heaving on three factors:
- having first-class reconnaissance intelligence,
- the element of genuine surprise, and lastly,
- Outnumbering the enemy.
Most historians note failure on all three tactical components with his fateful and infamous ‘Final Stand’.
Like Achilles, it seems that Custer achieved in death, the lasting fame that eluded him in life. For many years, the public saw him as a ‘tragic military hero’ and ‘a gentleman’ who ‘sacrificed his life for his country’. To this end, Custer’s wife, Elizabeth helped construct this narrative with the publication of several books including: Boots and Saddles, Life with General Custer in Dakota (1885), Tenting on the Plains (1887).
My own analysis is that General Custer was a psychologically flawed individual and that this can account for:
- his exponential rise through the ranks with little/limited actual military experience
- his very brutal treatment of the ‘enemy’ more especially the vulnerable (e.g. unarmed women, children and the elderly)
- his reliance upon his own skills and rejection of help or new technologies
- ultimately- his key military failure
Interested in Further reading?
I enjoyed reading Stephen E. Ambrose (1996): ‘Crazy Horse and Custer: the parallel lives of two American warriors’: New York: Anchor Books.
Ambrose, S.E. (1996). Crazy Horse and Custer: New York: Anchor Books.
Andrist,R K (2001). The Long Death: The Last Days of the Plains Indian, Editorial Galaxia.
Connell, E. (1997). Son of the Morning Star. Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
Custer, George Armstrong (1874) My Life on the Plains. New York: Sheldon and Company.
Kershaw, R. (2005). Red Sabbath: The Battle of Little Bighorn. Ian Allan Publishing.
Lowen, A. (1985). Narcissism: Denial of the True Self. Touchstone Books, New York.
Macnab, D B (2003). A Day to Remember: Introducing the Drama, Irony, and Controversies of the Battle of the Little Bighorn, iUniverse.
Parker, I. & Pavon-Cuellar (2014). Lacan, Discourse, Event: New Psychoanalytic Approaches to Textual Indeterminacy. Routledge. London
Perrett, B. (1993). Last Stand: Famous Battles Against the Odds. London: Arms & Armour.