Leading through massive change and chaos: Lessons from the Battle of Gettysburg

Experiential learning from
one of history’s greatest battles

How do you command tens of thousands of soldiers in the heat of battle? Union and Confederate leaders faced this challenge at the Battle of Gettysburg.

Leaders on the battlefield faced timeless challenges that many modern leaders would recognize. They had to turn setbacks into opportunities and strategically align their teams. And, they had to adapt to the constantly changing and unpredictable conditions of battle.

Gettysburg is really a good example of a chaotic situation where people make critical decisions.

Ultimately, the decisions both leaders made during this battle would determine the course of the wider conflict. The Battle of Gettysburg, fought from July 1-3, 1863, is widely considered the turning point of the Civil War.

Using historical battles as an experiential learning tool immerses teams in key moments to helps them to “relive” critical decision-making from the largest battle ever fought in the U.S.

Here’s an example of how:

Using history to gain key insights for your business

Here we outline four key strategic moments from Gettysburg that are still relevant to leaders today. These moments offer valuable takeaways on communication, organizational alignment, empowering your team, and the importance of embracing the latest technology

We also examine parallels between these moments and how some of today’s companies have managed challenging situations.

1. Streamlining the chain of command

General George Meade took control of the Union army just three days before the battle began. He had to reorganize an army of more than 100,000 troops practically overnight. He acted quickly to streamline the chain of command, reducing the number of his direct reports.

Underneath him, he had seven leaders. What did Meade do to align the organization? He created what we call wing commanders. Essentially, he cut that seven-man team into two teams. Two officers commanded a team a piece. One commanded three corps, one commanded four corps. So instead of seven people communicating with you, you only have two.

This swift reorganization helped the Union Army operate more smoothly and effectively than the Confederate Army, which Lee struggled to align.

Today, successful leaders realign their organizations in response to changing needs and challenges. Larry Page exemplified this when he restructured Google in 2015. He spun out Google’s smaller, more experimental projects into separate divisions and reorganized them all under a new parent company, Alphabet. This allowed Google itself to stay focused on its core mission. At the same time it gave other divisions more autonomy and freedom to innovate.

The ability to realign and restructure your team is critical to remaining agile during changing times.

2. Communicating clearly

In times of chaos, a failure to communicate clearly can have dire consequences. At Gettysburg, one confusing order may have actually cost the Confederates the battle.

On July 1, a corps led by Confederate lieutenant general Richard Ewell descended on Gettysburg. He and his men drove back Union troops and forced them to take defensive positions at the nearby Cemetery Hill.

General Robert E. Lee could have given Ewell a decisive command to take the hill, but Lee’s order was vague and unclear. He asked Ewell:

“… to carry the hill… if he found it practicable, but to avoid a general engagement until the arrival of the other divisions of the army, which were ordered to hastened forward.”

Perhaps due to the vagueness of Lee’s order, Ewell delayed the decision to attack the hill. This gave Union soldiers time to rebuild their defenses. This may have determined the outcome of the battle.

If you want to take the hill, you should say take the hill, or don’t take the hill. It’s a really poor way of communicating to a subordinate.

Union General Meade, on the other hand, gave clear orders that allowed him to lead decisively through the chaos of battle.

For example, there was nothing ambiguous about Meade’s order to General Hancock to go to Gettysburg and assume command of every officer regardless of rank:

“… General Reynolds has been killed or badly wounded. He directs that you… proceed to the front and by virtue of this order… assume command of the corps there assembled …”

Clear communication is just as crucial in a modern business setting. Just look at how Johnson & Johnson handled the infamous Tylenol incident in the ‘80s. It was a time of extreme crisis for the company. However, they ultimately came out ahead thanks to their decisive response and transparent communication with the public.

In times of crisis, clear communication from leaders is crucial.

3. Empowering people to make decisions in the field

The North’s General Meade had an advantage at Gettysburg because he empowered his staff to make decisions when he wasn’t around.

Meade couldn’t be all over the place at the same time to make decisions. So he empowered his staff so that if there was an issue, they could handle it on their own. Whereas Lee pretty much used his staff for paperwork. He didn’t empower them to make any decision on the field when he wasn’t there.

General Lee didn’t seek input from his staff; he made all major decisions himself. This rigid, unilateral approach made it more difficult for his team to adapt to the changing conditions of battle.

Today, empowering people and teams to make decisions on the ground is just as important. A recent example is Toyota, which dramatically overhauled its organizational structure in 2013. Before, all major decisions and communications went through the company’s Japan headquarters. This centralized structure slowed the company’s response to problems.

Following a series of safety issues and product recalls, Toyota gave more discretion and decision-making power to regional units. This allowed the company to respond more quickly to issues, and to adapt to changing conditions in different markets.

Like Meade, effective modern leaders recognize that they can’t make every call themselves. They trust their staff on the ground to make sound decisions.

4. Embracing technological change

Today, the communications technology available during the Civil War may seem archaic. Nonetheless, in the eyes of people living then, it was an era of rapid technological advancement.

During the time of the American Civil War, there was new technology coming out, which was facilitating the way communication was being handled. For example, the use of flag systems, communication in real time, and the use of the telegraph.

And, just like today, some people were reluctant to make a change.  So there was new technology available … but some people were getting it, and some people were not getting it.

For example, the North had an enormous technological advantage over the South thanks to its clever use of the telegraph. The North’s robust telegraph system allowed military leaders to coordinate strategies in real time, and across great distances.

President Lincoln himself regularly used telegraphs to communicate with commanders to ensure that their tactical decisions aligned with the Union’s wider strategy. The South had a telegraph network, too, but it was smaller, and leaders did not use it nearly as effectively. This put them at a great strategic disadvantage.

Today, communicating using the latest technology—and via the right channels—is just as important. Executives at Target were reminded of this during the company’s 2013 data breach, which exposed the data of up to 110 million consumers.

After the breach, Target’s CEO posted a statement on the company’s website. However, many shoppers were looking to Target’s social media channels, not the website, to find out how Target was handling the crisis.

When Target failed to engage with consumers on the most up-to-date communication platforms, many consumers reacted angrily, feeling like the company was not addressing their concerns.

In modern times, as in the past, embracing the latest avenues of communication is key.

Takeaway…

We can never know exactly what ran through the minds of General Lee and General Meade as they made high-stakes decisions on the battlefield. But the leadership challenges they faced are as relatable as ever. Modern leaders can learn a great deal from the way leaders at Gettysburg navigated large teams through times of incredible change and chaos.

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