August 2015

Battle-Tested Leadership

By Ed Ruggero

When business executives join me for The Gettysburg Leadership Experience, we look closely at leaders who made life-and-death decisions under tight timeliness, with imperfect information, for high stakes, and often while facing challenges they had never encountered before. That's what military commanders have done on some of America's most famous fields, and except perhaps for the life-and-death part, that is what business leaders do. This two-day leadership retreat offers tremendous opportunities for business leaders who want to learn:

Consider Colonel Joshua Chamberlain (in this painting by Dale Gallon) had only a year's experience as a soldier when he and three hundred volunteers from Maine formed a hasty battle line on a Pennsylvania hill that would later become famous: Little Round Top. Smoke filled the thick woods as soldiers on both sides fired at each other at a range of only twenty yards. Some determined Confederates clambered up the steep, rocky slope to the Federal position. Chamberlain would later write, "At times I was surrounded by more of the enemy than of my own men."

As the fight wore on, Chamberlain got word from his officers that they were running out of ammunition. The Maine men could not abandon the position—they had been ordered to "hold at all costs" because the hill was critical to the Army's defense—and they certainly could not defend themselves with empty weapons. When the exhausted Confederates attempted the hill once again, Chamberlain and his men charged downslope. It was too much for the Rebels, whose assault broke. Chamberlain, faced with a novel situation and deadly threat, had created a solution that saved the day.

We use Chamberlain's actions as a jumping off point to discuss creativity. Without exception, every leader I've worked with has told me that creativity is a boon to an organization and can mean the difference between continued, even spectacular success, on one hand, and an organization's demise on the other. While I certainly don't believe that every person can become a world-class creative type, I do believe that, with few exceptions, most people can become more creative than they are now. Interestingly, this happens when resources are constrained. Practicing with constrained resources teaches us to exercise our creative muscles more deliberately.

Our discussion of creativity, along with others that take place on the field, challenge the executives to ask themselves tough questions. Am I providing the best guidance? Am I setting the example? Do people know what's expected of them? How do I get my team to bond? And there is an unmistakable advantage to being on the field. Roger Crandall, the CEO of MassMutual Financial Group, recognized this when he said,

"Reading about great leaders like Colonel Joshua Chamberlain is instructive. But standing in the wind on Little Round Top and listening to Ed weave the story of Chamberlain's creativity and courage was riveting and intense. My senior leadership team has brought that intensity back to the office where they're tackling our business and leadership challenges with fresh ideas and energy. Thank you so much for delivering an excellent program that is paying off for our business."

Over two days leaders capture both the key questions and their answers, and then fit the critical elements into a tight document called a personal leadership philosophy. The executives leave Gettysburg armed with new insights and a tool to put these insights into practice. They've learned from each other and from the examples of other leaders, like Joshua Chamberlain, who made critical decisions in tough circumstances.

"Thank you for facilitating such an outstanding experience last week! The team left with a heightened sense of self-awareness, energy and commitment for taking our individual and collective game to the next level."

Brad Smith, CEO

Sign up for an open enrollment program at Gettysburg on September 21-23 or October 5-7 and receive a framed copy of Dale Gallon's print of Chamberlain's stand on Little Round Top.

Ed Ruggero is the co-author of The Leader's Compass: A Personal Leadership Philosophy Is Your Foundation For Success. He is also the creator of the Gettysburg Leadership Experience.