Gettysburg Leadership Lessons - Higher Ground Consulting Group, LLC
November 17, 2019
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GettysburgGettysburg has become a favorite destination of mine in recent years. One reason is my own love of history. Another is the beauty of the area and the many fine places to dine and stay. My most recent trip included some reflections about how leadership impacted the events that took place there.

Many historians believe the Battle of Gettysburg was the turning point of the American Civil War. The casualties on both sides are overwhelming. In three days of fighting more than 51,000 men were killed, wounded, or captured.

The decisions and actions taken at Gettysburg were made against the backdrop of previous battles won and lost. President Lincoln had recently replaced the commander of the Union army with Major General George Gordon Meade. The Confederate Army of Northern Virginia was under the command of General Robert E. Lee, an accomplished leader with a series of recent victories to his credit.

Both leaders, and their subordinates, created the kind of scenario that would make the decisions in this crucial battle even more important. Here are a few examples.

Timing

Leadership decisions are often a matter of timing. Union cavalry commander, Colonel John Buford, is credited with recognizing the strategic importance of Gettysburg as the Confederate army marched toward Pennsylvania. It was General Lee’s belief that he could destroy the Union Army of the Potomac and force an early end to the war. Buford positioned his troops on the high ground west of the city and gave the North a strategic advantage. His decision not to consult his superiors resulted in a timely action that impacted the battle from the very first day. Without General Meade’s clarity about his battlefield intentions it’s possible that Buford would have delayed in making a decision.

Ego

Ego is the enemy of effective leadership. General Lee’s recent string of victories may have impacted the quality of his decisions at Gettysburg. When leaders believe they and their organizations are invincible, only bad things can happen as a result. While Lee was known as a skillful tactician, it appears he didn’t always acknowledge the advice of his direct reports. Perhaps his worst symptom of hubris was the ill-fated “Pickett’s Charge” on the third day that was a disastrous defeat for the Southern forces.

Imperfect Conditions

Few leaders enjoy perfect conditions for decision-making. Most would prefer additional resources, better information, and more time. At Gettysburg, the story is told of Colonel Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, a professor with no military training. He commanded the 20th Maine Regiment of the Union Army. A few weeks before the Battle of Gettysburg he was given a group of 150 tired, homesick, ill, and hungry soldiers who wanted released from their duties. His willingness to empathize with their grievances, while explaining the situation faced by the Union army, rallied the men to stay. A few days later they drove back the enemy in defeat, even though they were outnumbered nearly two to one.

Today’s leaders can benefit from lessons learned at Gettysburg. In the face of chaotic conditions, successful leaders take timely action, set aside ego by including others in decision-making, and are resourceful and persistent in the face of adversity.

Take timely action, set aside ego, and be resourceful and persistent in adversity.

No one can state with certainty what Generals Lee and Meade were thinking as the Battle of Gettysburg unfolded. But we can use the lens of history to evaluate how their leadership styles impacted what transpired.

Your team doesn’t need to win every battle, but there is too much at stake to lose the war.

Photo Credit: Ken Byler

Ken Byler

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