Reflections on Gettysburg

I have had several weeks to reflect on a recent visit to Gettysburg, PA. Our leadership development team chose that site and the Lincoln Leadership Institute as the location from which we would begin our new Strategic Leadership Development program. Our first group consisted of 19 senior leaders including our Chairman/CEO and one of our Executive Vice Presidents. We are preparing to take another group of a similar size through the same experience in July. So not only have I had the opportunity to reflect back, I have had the opportunity to refine our focus while considering the implications for the upcoming group.

Prior to the visit, I watched the movie, Gettysburg with Sam Elliot and Martin Sheen, read the book Killer Angels by Michael Shaara and Pulitzer Prize winner, James McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom, but none of this prepared me for the leadership lessons that would jump off the battlefield during our time there and every single day since. Some of my take aways:

1. True strategic thinking is a rare. The ability to step away from the heat of the battle and the whirlwind of daily operations to consider the big picture and the future. General John Buford demonstrates this competency before the battle began. It is obvious that he had not waited until the onset of the shooting to step back and consider the larger picture, the current state as compared to the desired future state, and all they it may take to achieve that future state.

2. Courage to stand by one’s convictions, even when it may be costly and painful, is also a rare occurrence. General Buford stood strong to hold the high ground on day one of the battle, even in the face of an army that far outnumbered his forces. General Joshua Chamberlain demonstrated similar courage as he held the left flank on Little Round Top and mustered the courage of his entire regiment to stand strong, even when they had run out of ammunition.

3. An effective leader must appeal to the variety of deeply held convictions of their troops to keep them fully engaged. Some fought because they abhorred slavery, some because they clearly believe that a United States was better than a divided country, some fought for freedom, because they believed it was wrong for one entity to impose its will on another, some fought for the community they called home, some for their family and friends, some for fear, some for the opportunity for honor and glory, some for God, some out of anger, some for pride or respect. General Chamberlain seemed to get this better than most, and was able to help appeal to the hearts of many diverse individual’s inspiring them to realize their own sense of mission and purpose in this war.

4. Some leaders are either too stubborn or too arrogant to see or be convinced of a reality that should cause them to change their minds. General Robert E. Lee demonstrated this failure, in spite of strong words from his most competent leader, General James Longstreet. Another leader who demonstrated this failure was Major General George Pickett, who was so enthralled with the opportunity for personal glory, he failed to protect his troops, and became the only survivor of his entire regiment on the last day of the battle in what has become known as “Pickett’s Charge.”

5. If leaders do not create conditions for communication to occur; if they do not welcome dissenting views and consider them carefully, they are doomed to fail. This was another failure on the part of General Lee. It is interesting when he had the opportunity to invite the opinions of his other Generals, who would have certainly tried to persuade him to change course, he chose to only invite the opinion of one, and then he demonstrated such disappointment with the answers he received that General Longstreet, simply tucked his tail and led an army on to its destruction.

6. When leaders are so caught up in being “right” and feel they have been anointed by God, and have the resounding adoration of some troops (whom they exclusively chose to listen to), they are doomed to stay on their existing track to destruction. General Lee certainly had this messiah complex, as have many others throughout history, in many sectors, including civil, business and religion.

7. Sometimes victory is fortuitous. The Union won the battle, in large part, because they got to the high ground first, and they held it.

I still cannot fathom that fifty-eight thousand troops were killed in Gettysburg on those three days, or that six hundred and fifty-thousand troops were killed in the Civil War. I cannot imagine an America that is not a United States where we have freedom from coast to coast and border to border. I cannot imagine an America where slavery had not been abolished and where the conviction that “all men are created equal” with equal opportunity to pursue their dreams and overcome obstacles does not prevail. The United States we enjoy today, even with its many challenges, is the result of many great acts of leadership.

Can you imagine what your community would be like without your company or your leadership? Stop and think. Are you exhibiting the leadership competencies that will create a positive future?

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