April 2014

Chamberlain at Gettysburg
by Ed Ruggero

Video Transcript

Hi, I'm Ed Ruggero, and I run the Gettysburg Leadership Experience, where executives travel to the battlefield at Gettysburg and we use history to talk about leadership in modern organizations. Most of the fighting at Gettysburg on July 1st came at the northern end of the federal line. Lee's plan for July 2nd was to hit the southern end of the line. Among the men standing in the way of his plan were the 300 and some odd combat veterans of the 20th regiment of Maine volunteers commanded by a thirty four year old former professor of rhetoric named Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain. Chamberlain's men are last in line and arrive at Little Round Top at the southern end of the federal line.

The Confederates are already attacking at this point; Chamberlain meets his commander on the wooded slopes and his commander says to him, "You are the extreme flank of the entire union army." The message is clear; the 20th Maine is now an anchor for the entire union line. If Chamberlain loses this position, the entire federal army could crumble, leaving Washington open to a Confederate attack. Chamberlain's men are moving into position even as the Confederates are attacking up the slopes of Little Round Top. They are able to hold the line on the initial assault, but are quickly running out of ammunition. Chamberlain has only been in command for a year, has only been in the army for a year, there is nothing in his experience that tells him what to do. So he thinks to himself, well I can't just stay here because they are running out of ammunition, and I can't withdraw, because his boss told him this was the anchor for the entire federal army. So he's left with, as he sees it, only one choice, and that is to go forward, to attack the attacking Confederates.

Chamberlain brings in his junior officers and tells them what he wants; he wants the left ends of the regiment to swing around like a barn door until they are all on line, then to charge forward downhill. But there is nothing in the manual of drill which explains this and they have never done this before. Chamberlain has to rely on the fact that they trust him to lead them. He briefed his junior officers, gets out in front of the line where all his men can see him, tells them to fix bayonets, and leads the charge down the hill. The advancing Confederates are stunned by this, they are caught completely off guard, and the Maine men had the advantage of running downhill.

Those Confederates who do not flee are captured or killed right there on the slopes. After an entire afternoon of close quarters fighting, its over in a few minutes, as Federal soldiers sweep the Confederates off Little Round Top, saving the entire Union line, saving the entire position.

So what are the lessons that modern business leaders can take from Joshua Chamberlain's story. Well the first one has to do with creativity; faced with a brand new situation he had never seen before, and without a huge wealth of experience to call upon, Chamberlain created something that was new, he did it on the fly, and it turned out to be effective.

Another lesson we can take has to do with the clarity of our communications; Joshua Chamberlain was under almost unimaginable pressure when he brought his junior officers in and told them about the maneuver he wanted them to execute, which by the way none of them had ever heard of or seen before. His orders that day had to have been a model of clarity and brevity, he got the point across, he made them see what it was he wanted to have happen. Good leaders practice how they communicate.

Finally Chamberlain's men were willing to step up and try this new maneuver in the heat of battle because they trusted him. Trust is something we develop over time by making small deposits when people learn they can rely on us. Chamberlain had only been in uniform for only a year, but he had learned very rapidly that the key to being a successful combat commander is to combine thinking and aggressiveness. That's what he did on Little Round Top; creative leadership, coming up with a solution and then following through.

We'd like you to join our conversation on leadership: Have you ever found yourself in the situation that Joshua Chamberlain did, in some high stakes high pressure environment where you had no idea what the right answer was and you had to invent one on the spot and it better be a good one? Can we teach ourselves to be creative? How can we foster that kind of creativity, not only in ourselves but the folks who work for us as well?

Reprinted with permission from The Washington Post: On Leadership