The premise of the class is to learn about leadership from the decisions both Confederate and Federal generals made during the Battle of Gettysburg through 5 classroom sessions at Darden taught by a UVa undergrad history professor and a 2.5 day trip to the battlefields led by professors from the US Marine Corps University.
To start, the classroom sessions were fascinating. Our professor, Gary Gallagher, is an amazing lecturer. His knowledge about the Civil War is just astounding and what's more, he tells a good story. I love the case method, but it was refreshing change of pace to sit back and hear this first lecture (which you can watch on YouTube). In true Darden style, though, we peppered him with quite a few questions. In subsequent classes (watch class 2, class 3, and class 4), we moved more to the case method, analyzing the leadership decisions of Lincoln, Meade, Lee, and several of their subordinates. In our last class before we left, Professor Gallagher brought in several artifacts to give us a better feel of what it was like to be in the battle: hardtack made from the original recipe (which was rock hard, true to its name), almost every type of ammunition, and a rifled musket (I believe) including its bayonet, which we got to fire (blanks, that is). Pretty cool to see and touch these parts of the battle.
When we got to the battlefields this past Friday, the Marine professors took over. Equally well-versed in the battle, they gave us an additional perspective based on their military experience as we walked the fields and saw firsthand how the leadership on both sides made decisions--why was Little Round Top such critical ground to take and hold? Why did Sickles abandon the ground Meade told him to hold? What was it like to be part of Pickett's charge, walking 20 straight minutes from Seminary Ridge to Cemetery Ridge while being fired on the whole time and why would a leader ask his people to do such a seemingly absurd thing?
Besides being an unusual and just plain cool experience, the class is actually supposed to teach us about leadership. I'm writing this post as a means of procrastinating from writing my final paper for class, so I haven't fully formed my thoughts about the leadership lessons I've learned, but here's are some of the questions that I took away:
- When do you reward initiative? Dan Sickles moved his corps from where Meade had placed him to the higher ground in front of him. While this was better ground for his individual corps, this put the Union line in a vulnerable position. Long story short, serendipitously his move ended up helping the Union defense, but not without exposing them to significant risk. We argued a lot in the classroom and on the battlefield about whether Sickles' action and how Meade should have responded. On the one hand, you want to reward your subordinates for taking the initiative to react to changing conditions on the fly. But when they make bad decisions or directly defy an order they disagree with, do you hold them accountable for the outcomes? When should you give your subordinates the freedom to fail and when are the stakes just too high?
- How do you learn from success? At this point in the war, the Union's Army of the Potomac had lost several major battles. These losses, though, taught them several key lessons about how to handle different situations. It forced them to learn, to adapt, to evolve, which was critical to their eventual success in Gettysburg. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia, though, had won battle after battle. Each victory fueled their confidence--a key part of their success to date. But it also obscured the fact that conditions around them were changing and that they needed to adapt. When you're successful, how do you make sure you're still learning and evolving?
- What is micro-managing and what is just necessary supervision? We talked a lot about the leadership styles of Meade versus Lee. Lee often trusted his subordinates' judgment and as a result, gave long, vague orders assuming they would do the right thing. Meade gave detailed, concise orders that clearly instructed his generals to execute specific actions. It seemed clear which of these was more effective in Gettysburg, as Lee's orders resulted in several major missteps by his generals for the first time. But how do you know when you can trust your subordinates' judgment enough to be able to lay out the high-level strategy and let them execute as they see fit versus giving them detailed step-by-step instructions?
- When have you sufficiently voiced your opinion? Longstreet opposed Lee's plans every day of the battle. Lee was open to hearing his opinion, but ultimately disagreed. Many have made arguments that Longstreet's resulting action lost the battle (and eventually the war) for the Confederate. Did Lee sufficiently consider Longstreet's dissenting opinion? As a leader, how do you make sure you're remaining open to opposing ideas? As a subordinate, if you feel strongly about a strategy being wrong, when do you know you've sufficiently made your case? When do you shut up and do what you're told and when do you pull the rip cord and use your "go to hell" fund to get out?