A leadership lesson from Gettysburg

Last week marked the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg.  Because I grew up in a historic part of Virginia and I lived 30 miles from Gettysburg for a number of years, I have always known the presence of history on a daily basis.  Today, I can see Kennesaw Mountain, site of another Civil War battle, from my kitchen window.  The current round of sesquicentennial events from the Civil War are a reminder to reflect on this country’s history — and some of the leadership lessons it offers.

I had the opportunity to re-watch the 1993 movie Gettysburg this past weekend;  the film includes some illustrative depictions of leadership, although I’m only going to focus on one of these stories here.  In an event popularized by both Michael Shaara’s 1974 book The Killer Angels and the movie Gettysburg, Col. Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain was leading the 20th Maine Regiment;  he had left his position as a rhetoric professor at Bowdoin College to enlist for service in the Union army.  On the second day of the Gettysburg battle, Col. Chamberlain and his men were defending a hill called Little Round Top.  They were attacked by Confederate troops and lost many men.  They were basically out of ammunition.  Although Chamberlain’s men had presumably planned to collect whatever ammunition might be available from the fallen soldiers, the next attack came too quickly.  So Chamberlain assessed the situation, evaluated the tools at hand, and made a command decision – to use bayonets and charge downhill to meet the attackers.  Even if his troops were out of ammunition and couldn’t shoot their guns, his men could still use them as weapons.  (Geologists call this “field engineering.”)

Leaders are realistic about their circumstances and the solutions.  They understand their environment, the responses that make sense, and the mission they are trying to accomplish.  Chamberlain apparently did not waste any time thinking how unfair the attack was, finding ways to avoid engaging, or wishing he had stayed home on the Maine coast.  He figured out what he had to work with (guns without ammunition, but with bayonets), and he came up with a plan.  Then, as the reports go, he ordered his regiment to “fix bayonets” and led the charge down the hill.

Colin Powell has an excellent quote on this leadership topic, too:  “Leadership is solving problems.  The day soldiers stop bringing you their problems is the day you have stopped leading them.  They have either lost confidence that you can help or concluded you do not care.  Either case is a failure of leadership.”

And as John Wayne said, “Courage is being scared to death… and saddling up anyway.”  As depicted in this movie, Chamberlain not only “saddled up,” but he led others in doing the same.

As is common in Civil War lore, the movie Gettysburg emphasizes that, after the war, Chamberlain was elected governor of Maine (for four one-year terms) and then became president of Bowdoin College.  For the rest of his life, he always insisted on being addressed as “General.”  Chamberlain’s letters, which are part of a digital library at Bowdoin, offer some insight into his experience in academic leadership.  In a 1874 letter to Professor Henry Johnson, who taught modern languages at Bowdoin, Chamberlain wrote:  “I thought it best to resign the Presidency at the last Commencement; and I want to say to set a caution against your young ambition, that however pleasant and useful the life of a College Professor may be, that of a President, in I may say any of our common or best New England colleges even, is about the most thankless wearing and wasteful life that can be undertaken.”  Really?  More thankless, wearing, and wasteful than engaging in war?  That’s a remarkable perspective.

The film Gettysburg does not comment on the fact that the commanding officer of the Army of Northern Virginia in the Battle of Gettysburg, Robert E. Lee, also became a college president after the war.   Lee’s initial response to the Board of Trustees of Washington College (Lexington, Virginia), when he was elected president, was to decline the offer;  he thought his health would prevent him from active teaching (which was expected of most college presidents at the time), and he was concerned that his role in the war “…might draw upon the College a feeling of hostility.”  Reports are mixed about whether Lee enjoyed his presidential role, but the college certainly grew in curriculum, enrollment, and funding under his leadership.   Ultimately, the Board of Trustees capitalized on Lee’s popularity in the college’s fundraising efforts.  And why not?  The college needed funds desperately.  Even a year after Lee became president, the plan to build shelves to house the geological specimens was contingent on the carpenter being willing to wait seven months to be paid.  After Lee’s death, the Trustees renamed the school Washington and Lee.  In 2012, the endowment of Washington and Lee University was over $1.2 billion.  (Bowdoin College’s was over $900 million in that year.)

So, 150 years later, the Battle of Gettysburg still offers insights into leadership – in both military and academic settings.  What other lessons does this particular slice of history offer?

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