What Security Executives Should Know about Leadership

March 6, 2007
A Q&A with Wharton Professor Mike Useem

What do security executives need to know about leadership? We spoke recently with Wharton Professor Mike Useem, author of The Leadership Moment and The Go Point. Useem often takes executives in the Wharton/ASIS Security Executive Program out to the Civil War battlefield in Gettysburg to examine the direct impact of leadership decisions. For the managers who join him, the lessons are about much more than history.

Why is an understanding of leadership increasingly important for security executives?

Useem: There are two major reasons. First, security executives need to know how the top leaders in their enterprise operate. They have to have a framework for understanding the leadership style of their immediate boss as well as the chief executive. How do senior managers make decisions? What personal values and collective vision guide their actions? What information and advice do they want from you, and in what form do they want it? By understanding the distinctive leadership styles of your firm's top people, you will have a better handle for working with them and delivering what they need from you. It makes for a stronger capacity for "leading up."

Second, since 9/11, many companies have placed far greater emphasis on security, and this has put a premium on the leadership of those who are responsible for security. Security executives now operate in a more complex, uncertain, and fast-changing environment. And given the greater security concerns of the post 9/11 era, the stakes are higher, decisions more consequential, and the leadership exercised by security executives is consequently more important. When things go wrong, as they more often can in our turbulent times, top management immediately looks to the security executive for leadership through the crisis and beyond. Being fully prepared for such moment has become all the more essential.

What are the most important things for security executives to know about leadership?

Whether working for a company, public agency, or non-profit organization, security executives need at a minimum a capacity to articulate a clear vision, think strategically, and act decisively. They must bring character and integrity to everything they do. Their leadership skill set is really not much different from that of South Africa's Nelson Mandela or GE's Jack Welch.

Why do you take the security executives to the Gettysburg battlefield?

The classroom is a marvelous venue for identifying the key capacities of leadership. But to really appreciate the power of those ideas, there are few better experiences than to witness them embodied in the Union and Confederate commanders who made some of our history's most critical decisions on the Civil War battlefield at Gettysburg. By standing where Robert E. Lee stood on July 3, 1863 when he ordered the attack on a well defended Union line in what has become known as Pickett's Charge, we indelibly appreciate how vital it is to have good intelligence on challengers or threats before deciding how best to defend against or attack them. A major factor in Lee's decision to launch the charge was a woeful absence of good information on the strength of the Union's defense.

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.

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
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