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3 Leadership Lessons from the Battle of Gettysburg for Emergency Managers

Seamus Leary

Mar 17, 2023

The Battle of Gettysburg provides important leadership lessons that can be applied by today’s Emergency Managers. 

This year marks the 160th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg that occurred on July 1-3, 1863. The Battle of Gettysburg was one of the defining moments of the American Civil War. 

The Union’s Army of the Potomac defeated the Confederate Army of North Virginia after three days of hard fighting that became the costliest battle to ever occur in North America, resulting in upwards of 51,000 American casualties on both sides. 

The Battle of Gettysburg provides important leadership lessons that can be applied by today’s Emergency Managers. 

Effective Communication

In the early morning hours of June 28th 1863, Major General George Meade was informed by President Lincoln that he was to assume command of the Army of the Potomac. The Army of the Potomac was engaged in a pursuit of the Army of Northern Virginia on its march north into Pennsylvania. 

Even as a newly appointed commander, Meade ensured that his intent was clear to his subordinate commanders. Meade’s intent was simple, find the Confederate Army and engage it on ground favorable to the Union forces. 

On June 30th, Brigadier General John Buford’s Union Cavalry entered Gettysburg and quickly realized that they were holding favorable ground against the approaching Confederate Army. 

Buford clearly understood Meade’s intent and what he and his cavalrymen had to do. 

On the morning of July 1st, despite overwhelming odds, Buford’s men desperately held a ridge outside Gettysburg until reinforcing Union troops could arrive later that morning. Buford’s actions that day forced the Confederate Army to fight on terrain favorable to the Union Army. 

In terms of Emergency Management, it is critical for senior leaders to clearly and effectively communicate their strategic vision to subordinate leaders. 

By communicating the strategic vision, or leadership intent, this enables effective group alignment and a unified effort. Through the use of regular Command and General Staff Meetings and the implementation of the Incident Command System, senior Emergency Managers have the opportunity to align the efforts of numerous stakeholders during a disaster. 

Empowerment of Subordinate Leaders 

On the night of July 1st, Meade arrived on the Gettysburg Battlefield and received a briefing from his subordinate commanders and senior staff members. Generals Hancock and Buford, who had been onsite during the fighting throughout the day, recommended to Meade that the Union Army remain in their favorable positions on the high ground in Gettysburg and prepare to fight the Confederate Army in the morning.

Due to his arrival after dark, Meade had to trust the judgement of his subordinate commanders and called for the remainder of his army to move with all haste towards Gettysburg.

Disasters are highly dynamic environments that require subordinate leaders to make important decisions that may impact the lives and well-being of disaster survivors and their communities. These subordinate leaders must have the training, experience and, most importantly, they must be empowered to make crucial decisions when the situation calls for decisive action. 

Senior leaders should cultivate an empowered leadership environment and senior leaders must be prepared to support the decisions made by subordinate leaders under difficult circumstances. 

Operational Flexibility 

On July 2nd, the Chief of Engineers for the Army of the Potomac, Brigadier General Gouverneur Warren, realized that a hill called Little Round Top was the key position in the Union line and it was left virtually undefended as Confederate troops were approaching. 

Understanding that the loss of Little Round Top could quickly lead to a disaster for the Union Army, Warren dashed down the hill seeking any reinforcements he could find. Warren soon found the 140th New York Infantry Regiment marching to their position further up the line as they were ordered to earlier that morning. 

Warren asked the 140th New York’s commander, Colonel Patrick O’Rourke, to ignore the Regiment’s orders and follow him immediately up Little Round Top to save the Union position. 

At first, O’Rourke was reluctant to ignore his original orders and follow Warren’s direction, but the 26-year-old commander quickly realized the importance of Little Round Top and sprinted to the top of the hill at the head of the regiment. 

O’Rourke led his men in a desperate bayonet charge against the advancing Confederate troops, driving them off the crest of Little Round Top. Colonel O’Rourke was killed in the attack and was among the 133 causalities the regiment suffered during the engagement. 

Due to the decisive leadership of Brigadier General Warren and Colonel O’Rourke, the Union line was stabilized and additional Union troops were able to reinforce Little Round Top in the face of repeated Confederate attacks throughout the day. 

Disasters are dynamic environments and conditions on the ground can change rapidly due to expanding and cascading impacts. Emergency Managers must strive to achieve and maintain situational awareness while being prepared to pivot ongoing operations and shift resources to meet the needs of changing priorities. 

In terms of saving lives and protecting property, senior Emergency Management leaders must empower and support subordinate leaders to make crucial decisions based on limited information that requires immediate action. 

Although the Battle of Gettysburg occurred 160 years ago, the battle provides many leadership lessons that are applicable to all organizations. As the field of Emergency Management continues to evolve and the scope of available information exponentially increases, it is vital that effective leadership continues to be a cornerstone of the profession.

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