Leadership Lessons from the Civil War

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In General

There is a saying that goes something like “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Studying history can bring remarkable insights into how organizations can be successful today.  As an example, I just finished attending a two-day leadership and strategy workshop at the Gettysburg Battlefield site.  The workshop focused on leadership and strategy insights from the battle of Gettysburg and how they can be applied to our modern-day organizations.  Throughout the workshop I found many correlations and connections that can be applied in business today and want to share a few of them that stood out to me based on work I have been doing lately with clients.

As a quick refresher, Gettysburg is one of the most discussed battles in American History for several reasons.  First, the Civil War was a pivotal point in U.S history.  The country might be very different today if the war did not end as it did.  Secondly, the Battle of Gettysburg was a turning point in the Civil War.  The confederate army was pushing its way towards Washington, DC, and if they had been able to continue, the outcome of the Civil War would have likely not have been the same.

Here are a few of the lessons from the Battle of Gettysburg that seemed to resonate with me.

Lesson 1:  Don’t change your strategy just because an opportunity presents itself.  During the few months before Gettysburg, General Lee was very successful doing small raids and generally causing havoc on his way north.  This was his plan, and it was working well.  He was very careful to stay away from engaging the enemy in large fights.  By a fluke chance, he found himself in what he thought was a favorable position at Gettysburg, and he decided to change his strategy and fight a large battle.  He was not prepared, but he just didn’t want to pass up the chance to do something that he had been saying “no” to for months.  So he decided to say “yes” to something that was not part of his strategy.  It didn’t work, he was defeated, and it changed the course of the war.  The lesson is to know what to say “yes” to and what to say “no” to as part of your strategy. Then stick to it.

Lesson 2:  Understand the concept of a sunk cost.  General Lee made three attempts at defeating the Union Army at Gettysburg.  After his first two attempts, all of his leaders told him that they couldn’t win, and they should retreat.  General Lee said that they had lost too many men already and that there was no way they could stop after all the effort and loss.  If he would have stopped and gone back to following his strategy, he may have been able to keep the war going and fight another day.  The lesson is that just because you are invested in a major decision doesn’t mean you have to keep going because the investment so far is too great.  Sometimes you must know when it is time to move on and fight another day.

Lesson 3: “Fight through the objective, not to it.”  General Meade of the Union Army was appointed by President Lincoln and assumed command of the army just a few days before Gettysburg.  After the three days of fighting and the retreat of the Confederate Army, General Meade felt good about the battle and let the Confederate Army retreat.  He felt that they achieved a win and that was all that was needed.  In other words, he fought to the objective (the battle) and stopped.  By not continuing to pursue the retreating army, he was “fired” as the leader of the army for not understanding that the objective was not to win the battle but to finish the war.  He was a new leader and did not yet understand the idea that a leader has to look beyond what is right in front of him.  The lesson is that leaders need to always be focused on the bigger picture and not get caught up in thinking a short term win will achieve long term results.

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