The High Ground

Day Two at Gettysburg brought a total immersion into core concepts of leadership, long, in-depth discussions of the examples of those concepts displayed by the leaders during critical points in the battle, and illuminating (and muddy) up close & personal examinations of the spots where the leaders formulated their strategies and executed their tactics.

The morning began with an exploration of the first concept – anticipatory leadership – through the “high ground” metaphor. When his cavalry division arrived at Gettysburg the day before the battle, Union General John Buford immediately recognized the importance of seizing the high ground just south of the town of Gettysburg: the army who held this strategic position would be in position to effectively control the overall strategic context of the battle – their adversary would have to bring the fight to them uphill and across fences, streams, boulders and other obstacles. The holder of the high ground would be able see the events unfold in front of them, giving them precious extra time to make adjustments in the heat of the battle.

The presenter of this vignette, Joe Mieczkowski, a certified Gettysburg battlefield guide and former executive with the Social Security Administration, spoke of how great leaders enable the success of their Teams by simplifying the tasks at hand and, most importantly, by positioning them properly. Great leaders recognize that the high ground is the position that confers strategic advantage, whether in battle or business development and, as a result, they insist that their organizations constantly seek to identify and take the high ground. The Lincoln Leadership Institute refers to this as Anticipatory Leadership, which calls on leaders to anticipate events & reactions thereto, to look for tipping points, and to monitor the environment for strategic inflection points. At Gettysburg, Buford did all of the above:

  • Anticipate events and reactions: Buford planned his strategy by visualizing how the battle would play out depending upon who held the high ground, as he knew it was a force multiplier. Buford further understood that his ultimate commander, General Meade, would be naturally cautious, preferring a defensive posture. As a result, he acted quickly to secure positions that would enable his troops to hold the high ground before the arrival of the main columns of both the Union and Confederate armies.
  • Look for Tipping Points: Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point is perhaps one of my favorite books of all time, so I was delighted to see its core concept incorporated into anticipatory leadership: that little things can make all of the difference. Once he had secured defensive positions, Buford took the unusual step of ordering his cavalrymen to dismount and take their positions on foot. As a result, through binoculars, Buford’s men appeared to be a small band of militia, so the confederates attacked quickly and in apparent haphazard fashion. Buford’s men, who were well-trained and equipped with new, “high-tech weapons” (rapidly firing carbines), accomplished their mission of delaying the advance of a much larger Confederate force.
  • Monitor the environment for strategic inflection points: In contrast to the anticipatory leadership of Buford, Confederate General Harry Heth reacted to the events impetuously – as Buford’s men repulsed his attacks, Heth continued to throw additional resources at the problem, achieving the same unfortunate results every time. Heth fell victim to the concept of escalating commitment: Heth was well aware of his sunk costs on the “project” but was afraid to cut his losses and withdraw. The concept of escalating commitment is a killer: you know in your gut that the project is a dog, but the goals are so tantalizing and the Team assures you that they can be achieved with “just a few dollars more” (it seems like the concept raises its ugly head most notably and frequently in IT projects). How do you break it? Recognize you’re in it, create an exit strategy and (now for the hard part) execute. In other words, when you’re in a hole, stop digging. The hardest part, of course, is recognizing (admitting to yourself?) that you’re in a hole and having the guts to do something (probably painful) about it. Find a way to claim victory if you must but, just cancel that project.

The selection of the high ground metaphor was an excellent starting point for the leadership immersion that followed as it blends concepts of strategic thinking with tactical action. Upon arriving in Gettysburg, Buford and Heth both immediately recognized the strategic value of holding the high ground, but their tactical approaches lead to dramatically different results. Buford thought through the situation and deployed a light, flexible, technology-enabled force that could adjust to changing circumstances. In contrast, Heth responded impetuously with a traditional, heavy upfront approach. As the battle unfolded, Heth continued to “throw bodies at it,” which not only failed in its tactical objective of taking the hill, but also compromised the strategic options available to his commander, General Lee, when the main Confederate army arrived.

The High Ground

View from the High Ground chosen by Buford

As we worked through the metaphor, I thought of numerous examples from my experience where I had observed the principles of anticipatory leadership in action, situations where visualization had enabled our Team to prepare for strategic change and times when a seemingly small decision had made a huge difference one way or another. Unfortunately, I could also recall several painful examples of the trap of escalating commitment. Times when I should have recognized that we had reached an inflection point that called for another plan. Worse yet, times when I insisted we press on, causing us to work harder and consume more resources, only to either fail in the end or achieve some Pyrrhic victory.

In our global economy today of rapidly changing regulations, emerging markets, evolving capitalization strategies and structures, and blindingly fast technological innovations, we cannot afford to approach problems and opportunities by doing things the way they’ve always been done. Our solutions must be flexible and, most importantly, we must be flexible and courageous enough to throw down the shovel when we realize we’re in a hole.

Thanks as always for reading, commenting, forwarding, tweeting. Take care.

About Denis

Business Leader, Consultant & Social Entrepreneur. Proven senior executive leader with deep experience guiding companies throughout various lifecycle phases including start-up, rapid growth and maturity. Principal of YellowPark Garden, providing executive leadership expertise and assistance in economic and societal development initiatives.
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One Response to The High Ground

  1. Pingback: Transactional vs.Transformational Leadership | YellowPark Garden

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