What Security Executives Should Know about Leadership

A Q&A with Wharton Professor Mike Useem


On the battlefield, we are also enduringly reminded that while we can usually recover from tactical errors, it is much more difficult to recover from strategic blunders. Pickett's Charge proved to be one of the greatest strategic mistakes of the entire Civil War. It led to Lee's defeat at Gettysburg and that defeat constituted a great reversal of fortune. Lee had invaded Pennsylvania to end the war on Southern terms, but with his decisive loss at Gettysburg, he began a long defensive retreat that eventually culminated with his surrender on Northern terms at Appomattox, Virginia, on April 9, 1865.

What are some of the lessons managers take away from the experience on the Gettysburg battlefield?

As I suggest in my new book, The Go Point: When It is Time to Decide, (www.gopoint.com), effective leadership often comes down to repeatedly making good and timely decisions. We certainly see that at Gettysburg. It was a series of such decisions, some flawed, others belated, that resulted in Lee's ill-fated ultimate decision to send Pickett's 12,000 soldiers across an open field against Union soldiers who were well ensconced behind a stone wall with ample artillery.

Lee's first decision leading up to Pickett's Charge, taken in collaboration with Confederate president Jefferson Davis and his cabinet, was to take the war into Federal territory, hoping that by marching into the North he could seize the initiative and break the will of the North.

A second "go point" occurred when Lee arrived in Gettysburg and sent instructions to General Richard Ewell to "carry the hill occupied by the enemy, if he found it practicable." The vague message and Ewell's inexperience led him to be overcautious about taking what was known as Cemetery Hill. At that moment, he very likely could have seized the high ground before the Union forces became firmly entrenched. But instead, he waited as "some of the most fateful seconds of American history ticked past," in the words of one historian. In the end, Ewell did not attack, allowing Federal troops to dig in -- and successfully hold Cemetery Hill throughout the three days of the Gettysburg engagement.

Finally, when Lee made the decision on the battle's third day to order Pickett to attack the Union troops entrenched on Cemetery Ridge, he chose not to confer with his senior officers. Lee took his own counsel and in so doing did not allow himself the opportunity to hear the severe misgivings that many of his officers felt about the ill-fated initiative.

It is "go points" such as these that can determine the fate of a company or a nation. Lee's choices leading up to Gettysburg and then on the battlefield offer unforgettable lessons about importance of understanding the capabilities of those who work for you. Lee had under-appreciated Ewell's tentativeness resulting from inexperience and poor mentoring by a prior commander. We also reaffirm the importance of consulting with your top team before reaching critical decisions, precisely what Lee had not done before deciding on Pickett's Charge.

How is a decision on a Civil War battlefield more than a century ago relevant to the decisions security leaders are making today?

It draws us more fully than a classroom ever could into the frames of mind of the Confederate and Union commanders as they reached their fateful decisions that determined the outcome of the Gettysburg battle. By explicitly drawing the parallels of the battlefield decisions of 133 years ago with the security decisions of the present, we can become more clear minded about what is essential for effective decisions whenever one is in a position of responsibility.