On the first day of the Battle of Gettysburg, Union cavalry commander John Buford rode into the small Pennsylvania town with 2,900 men—and soon realized he was facing an attacking Confederate force of 13,500. It was not an ideal situation.
But what came next offers a useful lesson for school leaders today. Rather than bemoan his lack of resources, Buford made the most of the men under his command—and successfully delayed the Confederate advance long enough for Union reinforcements to arrive.
“Successful leaders make the most of the resources and assets at hand,” said Michael McGough, an associate professor of education at Pennsylvania’s York College and amateur historian. At Gettysburg, Buford “got the most out of what was at his disposal.”
That was Lesson 3 of McGough’s Sunday morning presentation, “Leadership Under Fire: Lessons from the Battle of Gettysburg,” the closing general session of the NSBA’s Leadership Conference in Washington, D.C.
It may seem unusual to seek education leadership information from a 150-year-old battle fought with rifled muskets and horse-drawn cannon. But McGough argued that the decisions made at Gettysburg—the pivotal battle of the Civil War—still offer significant lessons for 21st century leaders.
One of those lessons, McGough said, is that “great leaders know, understand, can articulate, and hold steadfast to an end goal.”
Abraham Lincoln showed such resolve, he said. Since the beginning of the war, the president had made clear that his goal was to preserve the union—and all his decisions served to advance that goal.
“Good leaders, the best leaders, know how to do that,” McGough said. “The best leaders hold steadfast to the end goal. In your boardrooms, in your discussions, at your board retreats … somebody has got to have that end goal in mind, somebody has to get up and say, ‘This is where we need to end up.’”
Another important lesson from the battle is that strong leaders can offer and accept hard truths, he said. One mistake Gen. Robert E. Lee made during the battle was his failure to heed the blunt warning of his corps commander, Lt. Gen. James Longstreet, that what was to become known as “Pickett’s Charge” was an attack doomed to failure.
“It can be difficult, in a power situation, to accept the truth,” McGough said. What’s more, “in your careers and your service on boards, you have come to situations where you knew something had to be said … you were afraid of a change that was needed, a danger that was approaching. It can be difficult to tell truth to power.”
At Gettysburg, he noted, Longstreet showed great courage in speaking his mind to Lee, who paid a high price for dismissing the warning. The subsequent attack resulted in more than 8,000 Confederate casualties and ended any hope of a Southern victory.
In the aftermath of the battle, the actions of the rival army commanders underscored another valuable lesson: “Real leaders know what comes next and they are prepared to act on that knowledge.”
The Union Commander, Gen. George Meade, showed no such understanding of this maxim after the battle. Content that his army was intact, McGough said, Meade failed to follow up his victory and pursue the shattered Confederate force. Meanwhile, Lee fully recognized the need to retreat and successfully preserved his army—a feat that historians say allowed the Confederacy to continue the war for almost two more years.
The final lesson that McGough shared was that the “best leaders understand and use the power of their words.”
No better example of this lesson exists than the Gettysburg Address, in which Lincoln, in fewer than 300 words, laid out the policy foundation for Reconstruction and, arguably, shaped the evolution of the nation to this day.
“Abraham Lincoln set the stage to heal an entire nation, a nation that had suffered more casualties in this one war than any all others combined,” McGough said. “He knew the power of words and … used them.”