Last week, I was standing in the Gettysburg museum looking at various pictures, including the spectacular Cyclorama, depicting Pickett’s charge across what looked like an open field, straight toward the stone walls behind which the Union soldiers were waiting. My vantage point was not unlike others in command who may have been watching part of the battle from a distance. I asked myself out loud, “Why would a General send his troops forward across and open field straight into the gunfire of the enemy?” I happened to be standing by a young professor who had written his doctoral thesis on Gettysburg, and who also happened to be on the faculty of the Lincoln Leadership Institute. He spoke up and said that question brings up a good illustration of the value of M.B.W.A. or Management by Walking Around. He told me that the perspective from which we had been observing the field certainly made it look open and flat and the troops would appear to be quite vulnerable. From this perspective, it would be easy to conclude that Pickett had made a spectacularly foolish decision.
However, from Pickett’s perspective and from the perspective of the Confederate soldiers walking across the field it was a different story. He said this field was rocky and undulating in such a manner that a man can find himself between rocks and boulders such that he cannot see more than 30 yards either way. In fact the trip across that field was anything but exposed and General Pickett considered this to be the Confederate’s best advantage for turning the battle in their favor.
We all know that Pickett’s decision resulted in disaster for the Confederacy, and the result was a battle that turned the advantage to the favor of the Union. In fact, the Battle of Gettysburg has become known as the battle that turned the war, and ultimately led to the preservation of the union.
Several lessons were driven home by this single conversation. One was how easy it is to draw the wrong conclusion when you are unfamiliar with the terrain where the battle is being fought, so be careful about conclusions that are drawn from afar. Another lesson was that just because a field looks like one you once crossed, it doesn’t necessarily bear any resemblance at all, so be careful about drawing conclusions based on what looks like familiar territory. And finally, there is no substitute for Management By Walking Around, for getting down close to the battle, or for trusting those who are on the front lines to either make decisions or to inform you if you are responsible for making decisions that may affect them or the areas in which they work.
There are many more leadership lessons from this historical battle that I hope to learn and share with you in the future.