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Leadership Lessons From Gettysburg, 150 Years Later
 

A century and a half ago, military leaders on both sides of the U.S. Civil War faced some of their toughest challenges in what became the decisive battle. What leadership lessons does history have for you?

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The population of the United States is now 10 times what it was at the start of the U.S. Civil War. Thus, as horrible as the casualties and scale of that war were, it's hard to conceive of its impact.

Imagine a nation of 31 million people in which a war kills 625,000, or in which a single battle--the three days of the Battle of Gettysburg, fought 150 years ago this week--results in 46,000 casualties (killed, wounded, or missing). To find the modern day equivalent, you'd have to think in terms of the death of millions.

Gettysburg marked the war's turning point, and the battle has been the subject of as much study as any conflict in U.S. military history. More recently, it's been used as a study of leadership, especially leadership in business.

In honor of the 150th anniversary, here are four such lessons, based primarily on the actions of three of the military leaders: Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee, Union Gen. George Meade, and Col. Joshua Chamberlain, whose stand at Little Round Top helped turn the tide of the battle that turned the tide of the war.

Pick your battles

Military historians still revere Gen. Robert E. Lee as a master tactician, but his strategic prowess was more suspect.

It was Lee who convinced Confederate President Jefferson Davis to invade the North in 1863, and it was Lee who made the decision in the waning hours of the battle to order a disastrous charge straight into the midst of the Union forces.

After the battle, Lee proclaimed to a subordinate that the loss had been "all my fault," and he offered his resignation to President Davis, who declined. In fact, the biggest mistake of Gettysburg may have been the decision to fight the battle at all.

Identify your weaknesses and correct them

Colonel Chamberlain wasn't a professional military man. He was a popular professor at Bowdoin University in Maine who felt that victory was a worthy cause that required everyone's efforts.

He left his comfortable perch to enlist, and almost immediately, the 34-year-old Chamberlain, who spoke 10 languages fluently, was offered a commission as a colonel. However, according to one biography, he rejected the lofty position at first, protesting that he should learn something about soldiering before he tried to lead a military unit.

Apparently, Chamberlain learned quickly, and his humility earned the soldiers' respect. He was eventually promoted and took over command of the 20th Maine Voluntary Infantry Regiment less than a month before Gettysburg. His leadership at the extreme end of the Union ranks (more on that below) proved to be decisive, and one of the turning points of the battle.

Delegate  -- but be prepared to decide

The overall Union commander, General Meade, was also new in command. He'd been promoted only three days before the battle, and he hadn't hadn't had a chance to become familiar with the entire force. On top of that, he had a reputation for being a short-tempered, even impetuous leader. The result could have been a recipe for disaster.

Many historians believe, however, that Meade's surprise elevation humbled him, even if only temporarily, and led him to delegate great responsibility to the commanders beneath him.

That, in turn, left him free to focus his attention on the biggest picture of the battle. When it became clear that General Lee had decided to gamble the outcome by ordering an infantry assault right up the middle (known as "Pickett's Charge"), Meade was able to move quickly to meet and defeat the Confederate troops.

Inspire first, lead second

Let's talk about Chamberlain again. By the second day of the three-day battle, Chamberlain's unit, the 20th Maine, was at the extreme left of the Union line, positioned at the top of a hill known as Little Round Top. The Confederates attacked his regiment over and over, coming up the hill and being turned back, but wearing the Maine troops down.

Almost out of ammunition, with the Confederates charging yet one more time, Chamberlain rallied his men. He ordered them to fix bayonets and do something counterintuitive to minds of the time: charge down the hill at their attackers, away from the ground they were defending. The counterattack broke the back of the Confederate assault, and the Northerners secured the hill. For his leadership, Chamberlain was later awarded the Medal of Honor.

The field was the site of another inspirational call later that year. In November, four months after the battle, President Lincoln visited to dedicate the Soldiers' National Cemetery there. Lincoln wasn't even the main speaker that day, but his short remarks, known now as the Gettysburg Address, became one of the most inspiring and lasting speeches in the nation's history.

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Last updated: Jul 1, 2013

BILL MURPHY JR. is a journalist, ghostwriter, and entrepreneur. He is the author of Breakthrough Entrepreneurship (with Jon Burgstone) and is a former reporter for The Washington Post.
@BillMurphyJr




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