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4 Leadership Lessons from the Battle of Gettysburg

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I recently attended the Gettysburg Leadership Institute and was introduced to a set of strong leaders: Confederate General Robert E. Lee and Union General George G. Meade. These Civil War leaders and their leadership decisions determined the fate of a nation. Imagine if you will, three days resulting in 46,000 casualties (killed, wounded, or missing). These three, hard fought days offer an excellent and engaging resource for the study of leadership: the complexity of the battle, the size of the armies, and the wide spectrum of personalities, all of which offer an extensive range of perspectives that are useful to those who work in local government. Here are several ways leadership in the Battle of Gettysburg translates to leadership in the daily life of the local government manager:


You must be able to adapt.

Let’s remember that the Battle of Gettysburg was unplanned; so both army commanders had to adapt to their surroundings and be agile. It was General George G. Meade that continued to adapt that led to the Union defeating the Confederates.

Leadership in daily life: The ability to adapt is crucial to the profession, and how well a manager and its staff embraces shifts or problems in the community and uses them to enhance it is a vital measure of effectiveness. Managers and their staffs should explore new skill sets as they take on new responsibilities and focus on ways to assess their organization’s structure, leverage resources to their maximum potential, and take advantage of opportunities for community partnerships.


You should inspire and lead.

One of the greatest stories of the Battle of Gettysburg is that of Colonel Chamberlain. A Bowdoin College graduate and professor, Chamberlain led the 20th Maine who held the extreme left flank on Little Round Top. Chamberlain made the daring decision to charge down the hill at the Confederates after his men ran out of ammunition, even participating in the action. After sustaining heavy casualties during the hour’s long action, the regiment attacked forcefully again with bayonets leaving the command at the top of the hill. If Chamberlain had instead ordered for his regiment to withdrawal, the Union left flank would have collapsed and possibly lead to a Union defeat.  

Leadership in daily life: It is your job as a leader to inspire and motivate your team to reach greatness. You can do this by leading by example, being decisive, pushing your teams limits, not imposing fear, holding your team accountable, and showing confidence through your very own purpose and role.


YOU SHOULD Show trust in your team.

The night before day three at the Battle of Gettysburg, General Robert E. Lee made his day three decisions alone; while General George G. Meade held a council of war to discuss battle tactics. Meade’s council of war showed investment in his people and in the mission, while Lee dictated strategy without accepting input from trusted subordinates.

Leadership in daily life: Building trust in your team creates a strong, cohesive group. It is likely that General George G. Meade earned his team’s trust by effectively defining everyone’s duties and the expectations of everyone’s roles, showing a timeline of events, not overloading units with too many commitments, and encouraging his men to stand up and lead. Things you can easily implement with your staff when leading an initiative. 


YOU MUST Be decisive.

In the end, Meade protected Washington and preserved the Union by destroying the Confederate Army, however, he did not follow up on his victory on July 3. His indecisiveness and failure to launch a timely pursuit of Lee’s army caused the war to continue for an additional two years. It is important to note that although President Abraham Lincoln was disappointed that Lee was allowed to escape, he acknowledged that Meade was a very capable commander. Meade commanded the Union Army of the Potomac until the end of the war.

Leadership in daily life: In 2014 at the 100th ICMA Annual Conference, Dan Heath, best-selling co-author of Decisive, introduced a four-step process that draws on extensive studies, stories, and research, and offered specific, practical tools to help others think more clearly about their options, get out of their head, and improve their decision making at work and at home.

He further discussed the four biggest villains of good decision-making:

  1. Narrow framing, putting blinders on.
  2. Confirmation bias, looking for information that only supports us.
  3. Short-term emotion, anxiety, and stress.
  4. Over confidence, thinking we know more than we do.

Awareness of these problems, Heath continued, won’t save us; we need a process:

  • Widen our options, don’t cherry pick. Don’t be blind to choices. Consider more than one alternative. The questions should not just be whether or not to do “X,” but should have at least one more option. Adding one more option can boost the odds of success.
  • Reality test assumptions. Confirmation bias interferes with our decision making. We want something to be true, so we test our assumptions only with those who will confirm them. Data is not inherently an antidote to bad decisions. Push to hear disconfirming information in order to make good decisions. Resist the “executive bubble.”
  • Attain distance before deciding. Agonizing decisions are often a sign of a values conflict. Don’t let short-term emotions interfere. Action steps to gain distance include asking “If a panel of 10 citizens studied the issue for a month, what would they recommend?” Or “What would our successors do?”
  • Prepare to be wrong. Set up a decision tripwire to tell us when to reconsider a decision. You may not put in place noise rules for a new event center, but plan to review citizen complaints in six months. That’s the trip wire for reconsidering a decision.


The Gettysburg Leadership Institute is offered in conjunction with the Gettysburg Foundation. Learn more about the program, here.

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