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Leadership Lessons from Gettysburg

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The Art of Developing Followership

As a leadership coach, leadership presence and resilience have always been my interest. And recently, this really hit home as I walked the battlefields of Gettysburg with a Brigadier General from the U.S. Army War College. I was there to deliver The Leadership Challenge® Workshop to a group of executives, with the General adding the history about this very decisive and divisive Civil War battle. As we talked about all that happened on that sacred ground so many years ago, the leadership lessons became evident. The generals and other corps commanders did not fight the Battle of Gettysburg alone. 150,000 men marched on those fields in three days; 50,000 lost their lives.

So, the question I came to consider was this: “What were the qualities these military leaders exhibited that inspired this kind of incredible commitment? How were all those brave soldiers motivated to keep fighting—even willing to die?”

In our world of leadership development, Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner, authors of The Leadership Challenge, address this question of inspired commitment when they describe effective leaders as those who we would “willingly follow.” And from the lessons I learned about the Battle at Gettysburg that day, here are some thoughts about what each of us as leaders might do to engender the kind of followership we need to make extraordinary things happen in our own personal “battlefields”—in our work, in our lives.

Lesson 1: Inspire with a clear vision.

“Stand firm, you men from Maine. Only once in a century will you bear such responsibility for freedom and justice, for God and humanity placed upon you...,” shouted Colonel Joshua Chamberlain as he faced the challenge of motivating his beleaguered band of scared, injured, and bone-tired men to carry out a third assault on a battleground already littered with the bodies of dead comrades.

As practitioners of The Five Practices of Exemplary Leadership®, we know that truly effective leaders take responsibility for creating a clear and compelling vision. But to motivate others to “enlist” in our pursuit, that vision must touch the emotions of those who will follow. Learning how to inspire through a common vision takes practice.

We can seek feedback from trusted colleagues to get better at putting emotion and imagery into our visions. We can routinely ask, “Why would my audience want to get on board with this vision? How do I know they are getting what they need to be inspired?”

Lesson 2: Are you delegating a task or are you delegating authority?

One of the most criticized decisions of the Battle of Gettysburg—a decision involving the attempt to take two important hills—was the result of what was clearly a miscommunication between General Robert E. Lee and General Richard Ewell. Instead of a firm and clear directive for how General Lee wished this general to act, Lee used the phrase “if practicable.” General Ewell interpreted this hedge as giving him the authority to make his own determination. Unfortunately, the urgency and seriousness of Lee’s request was not clearly conveyed. In fact, his choice of words turned out to be a serious misjudgment that resulted in the loss of lives and set a different course for the battle.

Cultivating effective delegation skills is a crucial leadership competency. First and foremost, leaders must be clear about whether they just want a task done or whether they are actually delegating the authority to discern or change course, if needed.

Before delegating or giving even a simple directive, we should pause and consider whether it is authority we are delegating. Ask, “What information, clarification, and support can I give to ensure that my constituent has clarity about what is being delegated? How can I reinforce the role in a successful outcome?

Lesson 3: Be flexible in the moment.

Each of the Gettysburg leaders had their own style, to be sure. But more than style, it was their behavior in the moment that determined whether an engagement was successful or not. The “fog of war” demands flexibility and adaptability by both leaders and followers. Communicating in the moment is a complex task requiring not only a clear vision but important decisions about what and how much to communicate to those seeking direction.

All of us, as leaders, can start to create flexibility by honing our response/reactivity skills. For example, create scenarios about critical incidents and “what if” situations to practice forecasting and imagining what would be said and what actions would/should be taken. We can think about the values we hold that frame our critical communication and directives?  We can ask what we learned when we had to do a quick analysis and decision.  But we can’t stop there, we can ask for feedback from those involved to gain their perspective.

Lesson 4: Enable, coach, and Encourage the Heart.

Stories abound about how the Gettysburg leaders created instant relationships with their men. To follow a leader in any circumstance—especially under the most arduous situations—requires a humanistic connection. Respectful nicknames were common during this battle. General Lee called General Longstreet his “old war-horse,” reinforcing the need for his loyalty and acknowledging his competence and commitment. Even when critical missteps were encountered, leaders shared accountability, told stories about what worked, and encouraged “the next success.” Like those at Gettysburg, leaders today have plenty of opportunities to assess their relationships and connection styles. We can practice our “inquiry” skills to quickly learn how and what our constituents think. And instead of “telling,” we can all be better served when we take time to listen and inquire.

On the battlefield, as in the workplace, the common thread that weaves through effective leadership is relationships. Whether building immediate or enduring connections, the words and actions of leaders have a profound influence on those willing to follow and those willing to be a part of an ongoing drive for success.

Take up the challenge, leaders. It just takes practice!

“When you delegate tasks you create followers, when you delegate authority, you create leaders” - Craig Groeschel


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Holly Seaton, Ph.D.

Holly Seaton, Ph.D. is a consultant for FlashPoint. Holly is an executive coach who appreciates the privilege of helping organizations and individuals build their leadership capacity by moving from intent to action.

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