Business Lessons from the Defense of Little Round Top

"The best way to predict the future is to create it." Abraham Lincoln
Written by Chad Storlie on Jun 21, 2018
Business Lessons from the Defense of Little Round Top

Gettysburg is the seminal battle in American military history. Gettysburg was a small town in Pennsylvania and it brought together the might of the Confederate (South) and Union (North) military forces over the first three days of July in 1863. The Battle of Gettysburg was a desperate defense by the Union forces against a bold invasion of the Northern states by the Confederate forces. Like all battles of the Civil War, any and every wound on each side hurt all of America, as the Union and the Confederate forces fought each other. 

The Leadership at Gettysburg. The invading Confederate forces and the defending Union forces represented two equally strong opponents. The Confederates displayed great general officer leadership by Lee, Longstreet, and Hood in their bold and daring attack in the Union. The defending Union forces displayed great general officer leadership by Buford, Reynolds, and Hancock to create and sustain a resolute defense. The three days of fighting were marked by heat, bravery, incredible leadership, and an intense desire to win.

The Lessons of Gettysburg. There are an amazing number of lessons for today that can be drawn from this important battle. The importance of initiative, the vital necessity of effective logistics, and the vital role of consistent reconnaissance. One of the best lessons of today emerges on the far end of the battlefield with the defense of a small section of the battlefield know as Little Round Top. Little Round Top was an unremarkable piece of land, a small wooded hilltop, guarded by a fairly unremarkable leader, Colonel John Chamberlain, leading a fairly unremarkable unit, the 20th Maine Infantry. However, by the next day, the defense of Little Round Top by the 20th Maine and Colonel Chamberlain would be legend.

The Business Lessons from the Defense of Little Round Top.

(1) Don’t Complain – Have a Plan. When the 20th Maine was taken to their defensive positions late in the day, it was obvious that the area to be defended was too great an area for the 20th Maine Infantry to defend using the standard defensive tactics of the day. Additionally, the 20th Maine faced logistical challenges in a long supply line, a shortage of water, not enough ammunition, and very little material to build defensive positions. Chamberlain, a teacher from Bowdoin College in Maine, conferred quickly with his leadership and quickly set a defensive position that they reinforced throughout the day. Leaders are never given “easy” tasks and all the resources they need – great leaders lead and plan through the challenges.

(2) No Matter How Bad – Show Courage & Lead By Example. The fighting that day was horrific and endless. The 20th Maine Infantry faced Southern forces that were skilled, great marksmen, and determined attackers. It would have been easy for the 20th Maine to convince themselves that the attacks were too ferocious and retreat. However, Chamberlain knew that his unit was the last Union force in the defensive line – literally the “end of the line.” Chamberlain knew that unless he showed personal courage, rallied the troops, and lead by example in every action that the unit would lose their morale. Discouragement is often an easy path, but true leadership shows resolve and sets the example.

(3) When Conditions Change, Adapt Your Plan. After several unsuccessful Confederate attacks, Chamberlain saw the Confederate forces reforming for an attack against an area that was lightly defended. Chamberlain knew that if he did not adapt his defensive tactics that he would be defeated. Instead, Chamberlain extended his line beyond what standard defensive tactics called for and was able to hold off the attacking forces one more time.  Instead of remaining with a plan that had worked in the past, Chamberlain saw that past actions were no longer a guarantee of future success and adapted his plan with his available resources.

(4) Don’t Sit Back, Take the Offense. Towards the end of the battle, Chamberlain realized the situation was grave.  He had lost a great deal of his unit, he was low on ammunition, and the remaining soldiers were exhausted. Instead of retreating, he adapted his tactics to create a “Swinging Door” where his 20th Maine Infantry would charge down the hill and then swing around like a door closing to surprise the attacking Confederate forces one last time. The 20th Maine had never done this maneuver before, in fact no one had, because it was created there in the smoke and noise of the battlefield. Chamberlain’s attack was a success. Staying static in times of stress is easy, deciding to create a bold offense or another attack to advance your position is the sign of leadership.

(5) Lead from Where Your Troops Are & the Action is Greatest. Throughout the battle, Chamberlain was where the battle was the most difficult and where the majority of the 20th Maine Infantry could see him. Military leaders are told to lead from the point where they can see and influence the battle to the greatest extent possible. Usually, this is the point of greatest danger. Leaders need to understand that they need to be seen when the situation is grave and they can personally be seen by their followers.

The Civil War was the worst and best war that the US fought. It was the worst because it pitted Americans against each other in a long and bloody struggle. It was the best because it took a large part of the country’s population on the road to freedom and becoming full citizens and ultimately built a stronger country. We can learn a great deal how to be better leaders we learn and understand how leaders of the past dealt with challenges and were triumphant.

More Information about the Battle of Gettysburg:

National Park Service – Gettysburg: http://www.nps.gov/gett/index.htm

 

ABOUT CHAD STORLIE: Chad is the author of two books how to translate and apply military experience to business: (1) Combat Leader to Corporate Leader and (2) Battlefield to Business Success. Chad is a retired US Army Special Forces officer with 20+ years of service in Infantry, Special Forces, and joint headquarters units. He has served in Iraq, Bosnia, Korea, and throughout the United States. He has been awarded the Bronze Star, the Combat Infantryman’s Badge, the Meritorious Service Medal, the Special Forces Tab, and the Ranger Tab. Chad is a mid-level marketing executive and has worked in marketing and sales roles for various companies, including General Electric, Comcast, and Manugistics. Chad has been published in the Harvard Business Review blog, Military.com, and the Oxford Leadership Journal. He has been featured in news stories in Inc, Business Week, the New York Post, Federal Computer Weekly, and the Atlanta Journal Constitution. Chad holds a BA from Northwestern University and an MBA from Georgetown University.

Follow Chad @ CombatToCorp and www.CombatToCorporate.com

Courtesy of USAA