Leadership Lessons from Gettysburg


This year marks a century and a half since an epic battle happened over the course of a few days in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. The Union and Confederate armies converged on the area the first week of July in 1863. Their meeting resulted in a conflict that left approximately 50,000 dead on the battlefield. Viewed by many historians as a turning point in the war, its importance has been explained annually in classrooms across the nation when reviewing the history of the American Civil War.

When learning about Gettysburg, few people could fail to find something interesting about the events that made the town forever famous. The stories about the townspeople, the volunteers, the soldiers and anyone else involved are captivating and fascinating. But, if I could refine it down to one particular topic, I would have to say what I find most interesting is the leadership lessons that occurred at the time but that can still be applied today.

Over the years, I have had the great fortune to visit the battlefield several times. Just walking that hallowed ground can lead to a lot of introspection by itself. Each time I have been though, I have had the opportunity to be guided by a historian who could accurately relay the decisions that formulated the strategies that both armies employed. Every visit has been unique, and I have never failed to learn something that I had not heard before. Two of my favorite case studies involve Union Army Generals Daniel Sickles and Joshua Chamberlain.

Daniel Sickles was a politician prior to entering the Union Army. To say that he had a very unique personal history would be putting it mildly. Sickles history was spotted with controversies and criminal proceedings. Nevertheless, he rose to a command position leading a corps of soldiers. Gettysburg was not the first conflict where he failed to follow orders resulting in great losses. However, it was his most egregious act of insubordination. His failure to follow orders and to freelance led to the decimation of his men and a near disaster that could have caused a reversal of outcome.

Joshua Chamberlain was a professor at a prestigious university in the State of Maine. Shortly after volunteering for the cause, he was given charge of the 20th Main. At a pivotal point in the battle Chamberlain valiantly led a charge with fixed bayonets into superior forces down a hill known as Little Round Top. His heroic leadership actions earned him a Medal of Honor and the moniker the Lion of the Round Top.

Now knowing this, what lessons can a contemporary leader learn from the examples of Sickles and Chamberlain? Sickles was a rogue actor, not only did he display a propensity for insubordination; he also demonstrated poor decision making associated with it. By allowing him to remain in a leadership position the credibility and safety of the organization was continuously jeopardized. A problematic type like Sickles must be immediately addressed and removed before they can do more damage. On the other hand Chamberlain is the epitome of a situational leader. As a college professor, he had no experience with being a soldier. Unlike most of his contemporaries he had not received officer training at West Point. Despite this, he was able to rise to the occasion and successfully lead his followers because of his resolve, character and charisma. He led them from the front, leading the charge. This is perhaps the single best thing you can do as a situational leader.

These are just two of the many great lessons both good and bad that can be taken from the Battle of Gettysburg. I would encourage you to dive a little deeper into the history to see what other details you can find to make yourself a better leader. Be a Chamberlain and lead the charge towards being the best you can be.

Is there a Sickles in your organization?

How do you think insubordination should be handled?

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Mike Stanley

Mike has a passion for leadership! He loves to read, write, discuss and teach on a variety of topics that help individuals and organizations raise their level of leadership. His experiences include being a Captain on the fire department, owning a business and being a founding member of the John Maxwell Team.

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