Skip to main content

Leadership Lessons from the Battle of Gettysburg

| October 20, 2015

by Jim Bruce

July 1, 2013 was the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg.  In the course of that three-day battle, the armies of the North and South deployed some 180,000 troops on the field of battle and suffered some 51,000 casualties and the course of American history was forever changed.

Much has been written about the battle and the individuals who fought and died there, and more recently about leadership lessons that can be drawn from the encounter.  I recently found several of these essays in my reading and want to share three leadership lessons I found there in today’s Tuesday Reading.

Every decision we make and action we take is made against a background of what has gone before.  The Battle of Gettysburg is no exception.  Shortly before the battle, President Lincoln had lost confidence in army commander, General Joe Hooker and replaced him with a recently promoted military engineer, Major General George Gordon Meade.  And, Robert E. Lee, commander of the South’s Army of Northern Virginia reorganized that army’s corps with two of the three corps commanders newly appointed to their positions.  None were prepared for this new level of command.  These staff changes set the stage for the three leadership lessons I want to share:

1.  Leaders must convey their intent.  General Meade sat down with his war council as many as three or four times a day during the battle.  Given that Meade was new to this role, this continual communication enabled him to better communicate the tactics and strategies he wished to deploy as well as receive reports from the field. 

Paul Merrild in “Reflections on Leadership from Gettysburg,” notes that the leader’s intent, the concept that “everyone in the chain of command must show clearly and concisely the mission’s objectives two levels above them and be able to communicate this information two levels below them,” is important for everyone.  This deep understanding enables anyone to make decisions “in the moment” that are consistent with the overall strategic and tactical objectives that have been set.

But sometimes, in spite of the communication, some leader decides he or she has a better idea, and makes a decision “in the moment” that violates the intent.  This was what Major General Daniel Sickles, who owed his military rank to his political importance in his home state, did on Day 2 of the battle.  Meade’s intent was for Sickles to defend a key position in the North’s line so as to prevent an attack on a key location held by the North.  Sickles surveyed the terrain, concluded that he did not like his position, and decided to move his men forward to higher ground.  In doing this, Sickles advanced his own cause of a safer, more ideal position for his corps while weakening the North’s line, leaving an important flank exposed, and, ultimately, leading to significant additional casualties.

Such actions are those of a renegade who believes he or she knows better than the leader.  As a leader, you have to decide how much of this behavior you will tolerate.  When the renegade’s behavior impact’s others and the organization’s work and becomes accepted as “normal,” a leader has no option except to act decisively.  To do otherwise will severely weaken the leader’s position.

 2.  Effective leaders park their egos at the door.  Robert E. Lee arrived at Gettysburg following a succession of victories.  Historians suggest that while Lee was a brilliant tactician, these victories may have created excessive confidence in his own ability as well as that of the army he led.  As a result, on Day 3 he ordered, against “passionate” objections of one of his senior generals, a charge – known as Pickett’s Charge – up a steep hill to attack a Union Army position.  The result was a disaster that was the turning battle of the Civil War. 

The lesson here is that leaders need, especially when they are on a “winning” streak, to consult with, and listen carefully to, others on their team, especially those who have differing points of view.

 3.  Leaders are rarely given perfect conditions.  When given a new assignment, the most typical response is “I need more resources.”  We always, quite naturally, want the perfect circumstances for any new initiative we launch.

Gettysburg gives us numerous examples where leaders had significant impact with limited resources in less than perfect conditions.  One such leader was Colonel Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain.  Chamberlain was a professor with no formal military training.  He commanded the 20th Maine Regiment of the Union Army.  Several weeks before the Battle of Gettysburg he was given a group of 150 mutineers from a sister regiment with the authorization to shoot anyone who did not do his duty for the Union Army.  These men had fought valiantly for the past two years but were now tired, hungry, ill, and homesick.  They refused to fight and demanded to be released from their final year of service.  I think that we can be certain that Chamberlain did not initially think of these men as helpful additional resources.

Nevertheless, Chamberlain extended aid to these soldiers, listened to their grievances, and explaining the task at hand, gave the soldiers a new unity of purpose.  That unity of purpose led Chamberlain’s troops, though outnumbered by a force twice their size, to drive their opponents into retreat.

John Greis, in his “Leadership Lessons from Gettysburg,” puts it this way:  “Simply stated, leadership is not about the availability of resources or perfection of one’s conditions, it’s about what you do with the resources on-hand.”

Three lessons – be clear about and communicate your intent, don’t let your ego lead you to bad decisions, and be an effective leader with the resources you have.  Perhaps these lessons will have an impact in how you approach your work this week.

Make your week the very best it can be.  .  .  .     jim



Paul Merrild, Reflections on Leadership from Gettysburg, Harvard Business Review.

Bill Murphy, Jr., Leadership Lessons From Gettysburg, 150 Years Later,

Jeffrey D. McCausland, The Top Three Leadership Lessons from the Battle of Gettysburg, The Guardian.

Justin Greis, Battlefield Leadership:  Leadership Lessons from Gettysburg, The Art of Advice Blog.