February 2013Leadership

Gettysburg as Classroom: Lessons in Leadership on a Civil War Battlefield


At the time he delivered his speech at Gettysburg, America’s sixteenth president said that “the world will little note, nor long remember” his words. Time proved him wrong: Abraham Lincoln’s address is arguably the most well-known speech in American history. It was given at an 1863 dedication of a cemetery for Union soldiers killed in the Battle of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, the site of the bloodiest battle of the Civil War. In it, the President boldly made clear that the reason for the war — fighting for liberty and equality — was worth the enormous cost.

But while it is Lincoln’s name (and the extraordinary leadership his address exemplifies), that is most often linked to Gettysburg, a major role in the Union´s victory in the three-day battle was played by subordinate Union officer Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain. Wharton management professor Mike Useem describes the scene to executives attending The Leadership Journey: Creating and Developing Your Leadership. “Chamberlain was commanded to hold his position against the advancing Confederate Army, although he wasn’t told how. When his unit had nearly exhausted its ammunition and the enemy was advancing, he ordered a rarely used tactic of fixing bayonets on the soldiers’ empty muskets, and charged down the hill. The startling maneuver turned the attackers around and saved the day. For his valor and inventiveness, Chamberlain received the nation’s highest military recognition, the Medal of Honor.”

The trip to Gettysburg during the week-long program is modeled after military-style “staff rides.” Useem explains,“Battlefield visits are used by the armed services to sharpen the strategic thinking of military officers in training as they witness how others exercised their strategic thinking during moments of great significance. Our group stands on the very same ground where Chamberlain led his bayonet charge. As we visualize the moment, we are reminded of just how important the clear expression of strategic intent can be for achieving a mission. Without his commander’s compelling communication of what must be done and without the freedom to decide how to do it, Chamberlain’s actions on that history-making hill might have taken a very different turn.

The Leadership Journey is intended to help people think about what makes a difference in a way they will never forget,” said Useem. “We create powerful, indelible experiences that become triggers for future leadership moments. Our participants will hopefully remember, for example, that as with Chamberlain´s commander, leadership is not a solo sport, and it is important for leaders to provide opportunities for well-prepared subordinates to decide on the ‘how’ when they have been made very clear on the ‘what.’”

Useem notes that it is becoming increasingly difficult for leaders to readily acquire many of these lessons in the normal workplace experience. “To learn, reflect, and strengthen your resolve to lead, you need to remove yourself from the unrelenting daily demands of work. We’ve seen in the past several years that organizations including companies, hospitals, and public agencies, are increasingly recognizing the value of learning experiences outside of the job itself for leadership development.”

By design, the lessons learned on the battlefield at Gettysburg resonate strongly with the executives in the program. Joe Godas, a vice president in the cable industry, attended The Leadership Journey recently. “I was able to have an honest moment with myself [in the program], examining my own strengths and weaknesses. It inspired me to work on my approach to leadership. At Gettysburg, I saw that the people who emerge as leaders aren’t always the ones you thought they’d be. Leadership can find you. And if you’re prepared, you can prevail.”