How does your leadership style compare to those who commanded during the Battle of Gettysburg?
The University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business and the Gettysburg Foundation have partnered together for an executive training experience so you can find out and learn from it. Begun more than a decade ago, the Gettysburg Experience looks at strategies such as teamwork, communication, conflict management and succession planning that leaders used during that fateful 1863 battle and translates those decisions into lessons for today’s workplaces and boardrooms.
Jody Wilson, Gettysburg Foundation’s Leadership Program Coordinator, notes battlefield leaders can often be idealized.
“We forget that every leader is also a person,” she said. “That person has experiences that are driving their decisions. When you are here in Gettysburg, we look at those leaders but we not only focus on what happened here but who they are. What kind of training did they have? How did they train the employees under them? Did they mentor them? Did they not mentor them? So we are really not saying ‘This is how you need to be a good leader or be a bad leader.’ We are talking about ‘This is what these leaders did here and let’s discuss what they did right and what they did wrong’.”
Before participants come, the program has each take a personality assessment to see which historical figure’s leadership style is similar to their own. Staff at the Gettysburg Foundation looked at the decisions made by leaders at the July battle to inform the results.
Different types of leaders
Col. Joshua Chamberlain was a college professor before he joined the Union Army and was not a conventional military leader.
“When the war broke out, he did not have the training, he studied,” Wilson said. “He worked up to his position. … A lot of his style was to lead by example and really treat his men as if they were human beings not just numbers or resources.”
He would often make sure his men had food and even convinced mutineers to stay with his regiment which helped them to successfully defend Little Round Top during the battle.
Daniel Sickles was the first person in the United States to successfully use the insanity plea when he killed his wife’s lover in 1859. He would go on to fight for the Union rising to the rank of major general. Wilson notes as a leader, Sickles was very self driven not mission or team driven.
“A lot of his actions (at Gettysburg) were not necessarily part of an organizational mission,” she said. “They were more personal goals. We often use him as the example of a toxic leader.”
An education in communication
One of the main aspects of the Gettysburg Experience is discussing mentoring and communication. “There were a lot of communication breakdowns while these men were here,” she said. Of course there were physical barriers on the battlefield that leaders do not have today but there was also tone in messages and not being able to see each other face to face.
Sickles did not put his men where he was ordered to do so. By the time Union Major George Meade found out, it was too late to move to a safer location and many died.
“They had to deal with what happened,” Wilson notes. “That’s a great lesson because that happens today. You miscommunicate and you make the wrong decision in business and then you are stuck with it. We see companies fail all the time.”
Gen. John Reynolds was a well respected leader in the Union Army. Dr. Jeffrey Kudisch, a UMD clinical professor who helps to lead the Gettysburg Experience, notes Reynolds was high energy, action oriented, outgoing and loved the thrill of the game and the charge. Reynolds was the first casualty at Gettysburg.
“Rather than stand behind them and letting troops go forward, he got so energized he took the first bullet,” Kudisch said. “Now think about what that means for people in the workplace. For people that are that excited and enthusiastic, (they) maybe need to dial it back and are thoughtful and collect more information than (right) jump in.”
Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee was not the best communicator. He used discretionary orders on the first day of the battle that weren’t very clear. He told a newer general that “if practicable” they should advance. The general was new and did not advance as Lee had wished because his orders were loosely translated.
“Only give those orders to people that offer discretion for managers that can handle it,” Wilson said. “If you have a new manager, they are going to need help to make those decisions whereas if you have a manager who is seasoned and has been around awhile you may be able to give them a broader scope and they can be creative and execute the order in a way that works out for everybody. It’s all about communication and what your intent is.”
Lee‘s ambiguous messages were often interpreted properly by Gen. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson but he died in battle a month and a half before Gettysburg.
“When you suddenly have to promote people that you don’t know what skills they have and they don’t know you, you have somebody that communicates poor messages or somebody that used to understand how to interpret that, now you have people who have no clue how to interpret that,” Kudisch said. “…We are teaching our leaders you have got to know your teams. Their profiles, their interests, their passions, their strengths, their opportunities and, unfortunately, that is the kind of stuff Lee didn’t pay attention to.”
Kudisch notes Lee’s leadership was almost the opposite of Chamberlain’s style.
“Clearly there was a lot of ego (with Lee),” he said. “There wasn’t a ton of humility and he didn’t connect with the people around him. Chamberlain embraced conflict and other people’s ideas but, on the other hand, Robert E. Lee was all about himself. He was standoffish. … If (his) team came to him with a problem, he ignored them and stood his course.”
A customizable program, sessions can last between one to three days including battlefield tours. Most groups bring between 12 to 35 people for a session with participants ranging from government entities to private companies.
“For us (the battle) becomes a very powerful tool because the decisions are so real and I think a lot of our participants really relate,” Wilson said. “They relate to the story. It’s almost like they own the story of Gettysburg and the Civil War because it is their story.”