Gettysburg Is a Schoolroom for Leadership Lessons

By Kathy Gurchiek Oct 21, 2016
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This is the third in a series about unique training and development programs.

The oppressive July heat beat down on Union and Confederate forces streaming through the fields and peach orchards of Gettysburg, Pa. A haze of smoke from musket fire hung like a fine mist as cannonballs whizzed by, bayonets flashed in the sun, and the whinny of horses and shouts of men pierced the air.

Over the course of three days, the battle would become the bloodiest one fought on U.S. soil. Leadership decisions made there changed history.

Fast-forward  154 years. The battle and its place in American history "make it an exceptional story to use as context for necessary leadership skills in modern organizations," says the Gettysburg Foundation, a nonprofit educational organization that supports the national parks and historical areas of Gettysburg, Pa.

The foundation connects leaders of the past and present through its In the Footsteps of Leaders Executive Program. The course is designed for executive teams from Fortune 500 companies and similar organizations to build and develop senior leadership skills and increase effectiveness by exploring the battle through the eyes of key Gettysburg commanders.

As the new regional sales marketing director for the east region for AmeriGas in the Philadelphia area, Mark Fennell is applying the lessons he learned from the program. At a battle site, Fennell joined other members from his local Chamber of Commerce to line up in formation to understand how battles were fought at that time. Muskets had extremely inaccurate aim, and the smoke from them obscured any line of sight, so commanders relied on tight formations of soldiers to move across the battlefield. The tactic required standing close to the enemy—and each other—during battle, which resulted in heavy casualties.

Innovations in weaponry during the Civil War significantly increased gunmen's accuracy, but some commanders did not adapt their strategies accordingly and their troops suffered more casualties as a result, Fennell said.

"They were entrenched in their ways of old warfare, even though technology had improved [the weapon]," he told SHRM Online. "They were slow to adopt changes."

Fennell was struck by how Union Gen. George Meade built consensus among his officers after Daniel Sickles, Commander of the Union 3rd Corps, disobeyed Meade's order and took a different, unauthorized action. The result: Confederate troops were able to take a key hill. His insubordination "led to the near-destruction of his corps," according to the Civil War Trust, a charitable organization the preserves American Civil War battlefields.

His action left his corps vulnerable to attack from multiple directions. Afterward, Sickles tried to divert attention from his ill-conceived actions by casting doubt among his peers about what the army should do next. In response, Meade gathered his seven corps commanders and two junior officers and asked each of them how they thought the troops should proceed. He started with the lowest-ranked officers so they would not be influenced by their superiors. They were all in agreement.

"He could have chosen to overrule them, but their decision was in alignment with what he wanted to do. He had everyone's buy-in," and they were able to focus on executing their plan, Fennell told SHRM Online. As a new leader of an established team, he tried the same tactic, with success, Fennell said.  

Lessons for C-Suite Women

Deloitte has partnered with the Army War College in Carlisle, Pa., since 2011 to put its senior female leaders through the company's Women's Initiative (WIN) program to learn about strategic decision-making.

The U.S. Army educational institution conducts research, offers strategic leader development and provides a military education.

"A key objective of WIN," according to a Deloitte spokesperson, "is to provide female professionals with the skills and tools to provide strong strategic counsel to clients and the Army War College program is a key component."

Led by a military historian from the Army War College who explains the context of a given battle movement, Deloitte's female partners and directors scrutinize the scenarios and debate the best course of military action before learning the decisions the military commanders made and their result. Female military officers from the Army War College join the discussion.

Approximately 135 women, in classes of 20, have gone through the program.

"What's most interesting about this [program] ... are the micro-decisions that are made all along the way" that illustrate leadership strategies, said China Widener, principal at Deloitte Consulting LLP, who has gone through the program.

A Deloitte CFO Insights article notes, for example, that on the first day of the Gettysburg battle, "[Confederate Gen. Robert E.] Lee ordered Gen. Richard Ewell to take Cemetery Hill 'if practicable.' "

"Ewell famously hesitated," the article noted, "allowing the Union Army to fortify its position on the high ground of the battlefield." It is an example, it said, of strategic ambiguity, which can have disastrous results in business as well as in war.

The discussion about the battle developed into analogies about serving clients and the notion of the level of risk involved and how to handle that after going through this program, Widener said.

As a leader in a business organization, do you pursue, retreat or hold your position "given the level of risk to yourself or your clients in a given situation?" Widener asked.

"This program forces all of us ... to say 'I need to process this information a bit differently' " than is normally done, to think more deeply about a situation and to put less reliance on visceral decisions, she said.

She was struck, she said, by the notion of being "ruthlessly consistent" in the face of competing priorities in battle or in the workplace.

As a leader, "it's more than making sure people know your vision, but being ruthlessly consistent in the execution" of that vision, she said. When presenting a plan or position, "[women] expect people to say 'that makes sense,' to adapt and adopt, and what we sometimes aren't mindful of is that [the other] person can agree but that is not the same thing as making it a priority. ... We have to make sure the priority stays front and center."

It's also important that organizations provide opportunities for their employees to apply the leadership lessons they have learned, she noted.

"Once they have exposure to that skill-building opportunity and development, they have to have something to come back to ... and immediately apply the things they've learned to the leadership roles" they hold, she said. "That's how learning takes root." 





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