What Security Executives Should Know about Leadership

A Q&A with Wharton Professor Mike Useem


After the day's walk on the Gettysburg battlefield, our group returns by bus to the Wharton School, and during that ride many of the mangers in the ASIS program are invited to come forward to take a microphone. They reflect on how the lessons of 1863 have direct parallels with the challenges that they are facing now. On our return from Gettysburg in late November 2006, several of the participants pointed out how critical it is to understand the strengths and weakness of one's subordinates if they are to be effectively led. They anchored that point be referencing Robert E. Lee's under-appreciation of Richard Ewell's shortcomings. Ewell had recently replaced Stonewall Jackson after Jackson had been fatally injured by his own troops at the battle of Chancellorsville. Jackson was known by Lee to be an aggressive commander and decisive decision maker. Ewell was far less so, and Lee's ambiguous command to take Cemetery Hill if "practicable" might well have led Jackson to attack and probably take the hill while with Ewell it did not. The speakers reminded all of us on the bus how vital it is understand the capabilities of subordinates before asking them to take actions on behalf of the company -- or in this case, the country.

Other speakers on the bus pointed out that the Gettysburg visit reconfirmed the importance of getting leadership decisions right and then ensuring that they are well executed by subordinates. It demonstrated yet again the importance of good intelligence -- Lee's decisions became flawed because his cavalry, the intelligence-gathering force of the era, had not been available when the battle commenced. It also showed that over-confidence, which Lee may have brought to Gettysburg after his recent victories at Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville, can result in over-optimism about the outcome of risky or even a "bet-the-company" decision, such as Pickett's Charge.

Are there more positive lessons from Gettysburg?

Yes, we visit the left-flank of the Union's 3.5-mile defensive line, a line that stretched from Culp's Hill at the right end to Little Round Top at the left end. It is here that a Union regimental commander from Maine, Col. Joshua Chamberlain, launched a remarkable bayonet charge late on July 2 that helped save the day for the Federal army. Chamberlain's regiment had been ordered by brigade commander Col. Strong Vincent to defend the crucial position on the far left flank of the Union army. Beginning at 4 p.m., Southern infantry had been aggressively attacking Little Round Top. By 6 p.m., Chamberlain's unit was nearly out of ammunition, and a sixth Confederate assault was on the verge of breaking through the Union defenses. But Chamberlain refused to give ground. Rather than retreat, which seemed the only alternative given the absence of ammunition, Chamberlain ordered his men to fix their bayonets and charge down from Little Round Top against the oncoming Confederate troops. The bayonet charge so shocked the attackers that even though they had twice Chamberlain's regimental numbers and still were well stocked with ammunition, they surrendered to Chamberlain's smaller force.

This battlefield moment -- which we recall and review while standing where Chamberlain ordered his bayonet charge -- reaffirms the importance of having good people like Chamberlain on your team who will be making decisions on your behalf when you are not around to oversee them. Strong Vincent had placed Chamberlain at the right spot, made it clear what Chamberlain had to do, and then left the area to attend to other battlefield matters, empowering Chamberlain to make his own battlefield decisions. Chamberlain had become a very capable commander by the Gettysburg engagement, and he rose to the occasion, finding a solution where those of lesser leadership talent might have fallen short, saving the day for the Union. Having the right people on your team who are well prepared to make their own decisions, we are reminded, can be essential for any organization, whether a Civil War brigade or business enterprise.

Learn more: Business Management Skills for Security Executives
Columns and interviews with Wharton/ASIS program professors are regular features on SecurityInfoWatch.com. The Wharton/ASIS educational program is designed to superbly stimulate security improvement through educational reform by promoting better business comprehension and decision making by security executives. If you are interested in this program, please call 800-255-3932, ext. 4401, or send an email to execed@wharton.upenn.edu.