Sometimes bad stuff happens… like 206 years ago today – one of the most disastrous days in the history of our country.
It was during the War of 1812. And as we know all too well, all bets are off during wartime (and often during peacetime also).
British forces overwhelmed American militiamen at the Battle of Bladensburg, Maryland – just 6 miles from the capital.
Our American militia at Bladensburg outnumbered the British, and we clearly had the upper hand in terms of cavalry and artillery. The British had just marched 15 miles through stifling heat, triggering cases of sunstroke among their troops.
Yet American militiamen fled before them, due in large part to intimidating yet inaccurate rockets being fired their direction.
Americans On the Run…
Most Congressmen and other government officials fled the capital when the news hit. Clerks whisked important documents, including the Declaration of Independence, out of town.
President Madison had been at the battle, commanding the American troops – the first and only president to literally exercise his authority as commander in chief in an actual battle.
He sent word to his wife, Dolley, who agreed to leave the White House only if she could arrange for the safekeeping of a full-length George Washington portrait.
Evidently, President Madison and his wife planned to eat before high-tailing it out of town, but changed their plans due to the imminent arrival of the Brits.
British troops found the White House deserted, with food and wine set for 40 people. So before setting fire to the building, they dined there.
They then set the city aflame, torching the still-incomplete Capitol building, plus the Library of Congress and Supreme Court, other federal buildings, and private homes.
Within a day, torrential downpours helped douse the flames. So the British left Washington, fearing a counter-attack. They soon suffered major defeats of their own, bringing the war to a close.
But not before thoroughly humiliating the Madison presidency and leaving behind a trail of destruction.
So what are the business lessons here?
1. Choose internal staff and outside advisors and mentors carefully.
Up till the last moment, President Madison’s Secretary of War insisted that the British would never attack the capital – a very foolish stance during wartime.
Not even an anonymous letter detailing British invasion plans could spur the administration into action. Nor did a plea from Washington’s mayor, who deemed the city defenseless.
It’s true that not everyone has the ability to ‘see around corners.’ But for key advisory positions, you owe it to yourself and your company to be sure you find the right strategist, employee, or consultant to fill that role.
2. Take action. Implement. When you recognize a threat, act. Don’t dawdle.
Four days before the actual disaster, the British played smart while the Americans fumbled and dropped the ball. British ships acted by sailing (amid far-from-perfect conditions) to the Potomac, and also sent diversionary forces as a backup plan. American leaders did almost nothing.
3. For heaven’s sake, have a plan and work it. If you can’t handle the load of implementation, hire a freelancer to help you pick up the slack.
Upon hearing that the British fleet was on the move, Secretary of State James Monroe cobbled together a makeshift scouting party. But they forgot a key piece of equipment – a spyglass. So they couldn’t even determine the size of the invading force. During wartime, you’d think they’d have had more foresight – and a strategic plan.
Sometimes new threats demand hasty reactions. But the price of American procrastination and disorganization was the burning of the capital. And if so many people hadn’t fled the city, it would’ve been a bloodbath too.
4. Have a loss prevention plan.
Human planning and insight will never be 100 percent accurate, so have a contingency plan. What will you do if the worst happens? And you can be sure, if you’re in business long enough, something you failed to prepare for will happen.
What happens when they decide to rebuild the street in front of your restaurant or retail business… forcing your customers to jump through unwanted barriers for six months? Or you have a product liability issue like Takata’s airbag fiasco? Or a departing employee steals half your clients? The list goes on…
Naturally, the more accurate your company’s financials and the more assets you hold in reserve, the better you’ll be able to weather those inevitable hiccups. And those reserves are driven by smart marketing, advertising, good products, and a good business model.
So if the worst happened to your business, would you rebuild? Could you rebuild?
You need to implement loss prevention measures. Because foresight isn’t 100 percent accurate, and there are times when problems seemingly come out of nowhere, despite our best-laid plans.
Taxes aided the rebuilding of Washington, D.C. You and I obviously don’t have that advantage, so we need to make other contingency plans.