Lessons in Leadership From the Battle of Gettysburg

Jul 1, 2013

One of my hobbies is studying military history, and one of my favorite people is Joshua Chamberlain. He was essentially a school teacher thrust into war who found himself at the most critical point during the battle of Gettysburg in the midst of the American Civil War 150 years ago this week.

The battle is probably one of the most famous and studied in history. There are many moments that can serve even today as lessons in how to make decisions and lead people that still make sense today.

He volunteered to lead a group of men from his state of Maine despite his total lack of military knowledge. When the battle of Gettysburg started he found himself at the far end of the Union line on a high point called Little Round Top.

Imagine yourself defending the end of a zipper. If you fail the entire line might come undone. If you fail the Union might lose the battle and even lose the war. Not a pressure most of us would want to be in. Here was a man not used to any pressure at all.

Running out of ammunition and with causalities mounting he had to make a decision. Most people (even in the Civil war) would consider retreat or even running away. From a military standpoint the prudent thing is to stay in cover since you hold the high ground.

He didn't do anything like that. He ordered a bayonet charge downhill into a charging enemy, something no sane person would have ever expected. But at the critical point it was exactly the only thing that could have worked. Even without training and experience he understood the situation, balanced all the facts, determined the correct course of action, and acted. The people around him trusted in his decision and followed him down and stopped the attack.

How many of us would have run down the hill people were shooting up into? Who would have expected that this would work?

I think of Steve Jobs coming back to Apple and discovering it was on death's door. A year earlier I had left Apple figuring it was dead for sure. Yet Steve did exactly the opposite, he not only made all the right decisions, he actually spent money they barely had on a seemingly pointless brand ad campaign because he saw that the counter-intuitive nature was exactly what was required. He then got people at Apple to believe in his decisions and they followed him to eventually making Apple the biggest company in the world.

Most people, including the infamous Michael Dell, thought they should just give up. I retreated back to Texas.

What are the lessons here?

One - know all the facts, including the good and the bad, the likely and the unlikely. In a crisis you can't ignore anything that might help you make a decision. Chamberlain knew the situation better than anyone around him, and certainly better than the Southern generals who failed to grasp the importance of that little hill and invest more of their troops.

Two - don't do the expected. People love to follow the herd, do what the majority teaches them, and repeat the tried and true. To really succeed you have to do what your competitors could not imagine happening. Chamberlain succeeded by attacking when no one expected it, turning a weakness into a strength.

I still remember when Jobs introduced the iPhone, and all the phone manufacturers laughed at a computer company trying to compete against all of their experience. But the iPhone changed everything in the market and killed all of them because it was the right direction to go and none of them were prepared.

Three - be worthy of trust. Chamberlain's troops apparently trusted in his decision making despite a lack of experience and education in war, and when the crucial moment came no one hesitated to follow him. Without that trust decisions don't matter, no one will back you up. With Jobs his famous "reality distortion field" helped convince people at Apple that they really could change the direction of the company and even the world. Whether changing the world or running down a hill with pointy metal sticks you can't do it alone.

Four - don't hesitate. I think for most of us this is the hardest part when faced with a crisis, much less the fate of an entire people potentially riding on your decision. You have the facts, you've made the right but off the wall decision and your people are behind you; now is not the time to dawdle. Many great generals in history were known by their ability to size up a situation and issue the correct orders instantly; many dead generals in history failed to grasp what was happening and then wondered what to do. You can't wonder, you have to move.

Robert E. Lee is one of the greatest generals in history but even he failed sometimes, and the third day of Gettysburg was one of those times. He had the facts, that his army would have to cross a mile of open terrain to meet the enemy. He had the troops who would follow him anywhere. He made a decision. But here was a case were he did exactly what the enemy expected, and he decided it despite the facts. The result was Pickett's Charge and it may have cost the South the ability to ever win the war, wracking up huge casualties for no gain. Lee didn't realize he was doing exactly the wrong thing, blowing his chances at winning the war because he thought his people were so superior to the enemy that they could overcome an un-winnable situation.

So Five - be honest about your strengths and especially limitations. This isn't meant to keep you from making bold and quick decisions but it is a corollary of all of the lessons. You need all the facts and one of them might be your limitations or those of your team; you need to understand your competitor's strengths better than they do; and you need to realize how much time you actually have before action is too late.

Chamberlain knew the situation well, he saw what was unfolding, he realized that if he waited any longer he wouldn't have enough men to do anything, picked the proper tactic and he moved. In Lee's case he actually did the opposite, he allowed the enemy to have all the strengths, ignored his own weaknesses and that of the terrain and he had plenty of time to make the correct decision but never really considered the right one: retreat and save the troops to fight another day in a better situation. Being a great general he learned the lesson and never did it again but it was too late for the war.

The last lesson might have less to do with leadership but I still it's important to mention. At Appomattox Courthouse during the surrender ceremony Joshua Chamberlain did the unthinkable: as the defeated troops marched by he ordered his men to "carry arms" which showed respect to the defeated soldiers. It was immensely unpopular with many in the North but I still think it was an amazing show of honor.

Thus, six: be gracious in victory and in defeat. Not really a necessity in business nor all that common or likely today but I'd rather live in a world populated with Joshua Chamberlains than Gordon Gekkos.