Leadership secrets of the Civil War

Good leadership skills and smart decision-making are important for anyone in an organization, no matter what level they occupy, says Management Professor Michael Useem. You never know when the fate of an entire nation might turn on them.

For instance, consider Joshua L. Chamberlain, commander of the 20th Maine regiment in the Union Army at the Battle of Gettysburg. "Before arriving at Gettysburg," Useem said, "Chamberlain had been able to recruit 120 mutinous Union soldiers, and many small steps that Chamberlain took determined their willingness to take up muskets and fight for him, and their willingness proved crucial his ability to hold Little Round Top on the second day of the battle."

And the rest, as the saying goes, is history. "Chamberlain had no way of knowing that his decisions would be that important, but the steps he took to win over [those soldiers'] hearts proved decisive."

Students in Michael Useem's "Foundations of Leadership" course view the field from which Confederate troops made their assault on Little Round Top on the second day of the Battle of Gettysburg.

A day-long trip to Gettysburg National Battlefield Memorial each spring provides Useem's mid-level executives with what he called "a very tangible experience, where they can walk the battlefield and reconstruct what it might have been like if they were one of the generals or one of the regimental commanders.

"Knowing what decisions were made, and why some of them worked and some led to disastrous outcomes, participants take away a stronger sense of what they need to do in their own lives to be a more effective leader," he said.

The Gettysburg experience drives home the need for continuous information and clear communications among and between managers and subordinates. Paul Kavanagh, director of investment banking at Barclays Capital in New York and a participant in this year's trip, observed that General Robert E. Lee's Confederate army "was at a disadvantage at the outset because it did not have information from its cavalry, which arrived late."

And why wasn't the cavalry there? Because Lee's cavalry commander, J.E.B. Stuart, had been given broad objectives which he thought he was achieving by remaining in another location. Generally, Useem said, "giving your commanders a very long leash to get the job done is a good leadership principle, but there's a downside here."

As Kavanaugh put it, the battle "starkly highlights the importance of information, on the one hand, being able to delegate a lot of discretion to managers, and on the other hand, the advantage of having a consultative approach towards how to respond to changing circumstances," as Gen. George Gordon Meade employed with his Union forces.

"One of the things that struck me," Kavanagh said,"was the similarities of the structure, management and resources of the armies to the organizational structure of a company, and the strong parallels you can draw in how management and information flows in both."