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Gettysburg’s Lesson on Situational Leadership


 I teach a graduate class in leadership theory to school administrators who are working toward obtaining their superintendent’s letter of eligibility. During our summer seminar, we focus on ethical behavior, leadership theories, leadership behavior and strategic planning. We also visit the Gettysburg battlefield to study leadership decisions that were made during the three-day battle.

We discuss the following historical incident, which illustrates the impact of discretionary and nondiscretionary orders and applies to any superintendent when working with a newly hired principal.

In the summer of 1863, during the first day of battle at Gettysburg, Confederate troops under the command of Gen. Richard S. Ewell were in hot pursuit of panic-stricken Union soldiers as they retreated through the narrow streets of Gettysburg. Lee watched the fleeing Union soldiers streaming toward the distant hill and sensed another battlefield triumph.

Lee knew that Ewell, one of his newly appointed corps commanders, was within striking range of Cemetery Hill. He dispatched his aide with a short verbal order to Ewell saying, “Take the hill, if practicable, but don’t bring on a general engagement.”

The first part of this order is discretionary: It allows Ewell the discretion to attack or not attack the Union troops entrenched on Cemetery Hill. But the second part of Lee’s order is nondiscretionary: Ewell was ordered not to attack if it would result in a general engagement of his corps. So the problem facing Ewell was how to organize an attack on Cemetery Hill without bringing on a general engagement of the army.

A Missing Presence

Simply put, Lee’s discretionary order was probably a very serious error. Ewell needed two things at this point: A nondiscretionary order saying, “Take the hill” along with Lee’s physical presence to help Ewell detect vulnerable weak spots in the federal defenses on the hill.

So Ewell, who had been a corps commander for only one month, needed specific directions from General Lee as well as a face-to-face meeting. Consider the fact that Ewell’s men arrived at Gettysburg around noon and they immediately became engaged in a fierce four-hour battle. By 4 p.m., Ewell was dealing with a bewildering mass of logistics, including reorganizing his brigades, guarding prisoners and mounting an attack on Cemetery Hill, if practicable.

If Lee instead had met with Ewell in person at 4 p.m., there is a good chance Lee would have identified “weak spots” in the enemy fortifications on Cemetery Hill, thus helping Ewell to make tactical decisions based on Lee’s keen perception of battlefield tactics. In other words, Lee, with all his experience, may have seen vulnerable gaps in the Union defense that an inexperienced newly appointed corps commander such as Ewell could not see.

Unfortunately, Robert E. Lee treated Ewell as if he were a highly experienced commander. Lee erred at Gettysburg in that he had almost no direct communication with his new corps commander once the battle began. This incident can be directly related to situational leadership theory.

Status Quo Thinking

Situational leadership theory is based on the premise that different situations demand different behavior. To be effective, the leader needs to adapt his or her administrative style to accommodate the needs and competence of newly hired administrators. Situational leadership theory is about how well subordinates understand the tasks they are expected to accomplish. But in order to accomplish the task, they need to know the leader’s intent as well as the organizational mission.

When I present Ewell’s situation to school administrators, it’s not long before they raise several questions. What if General Lee’s message had simply been “take the hill”? Why did Lee issue a discretionary order at this critical point in the battle? Why didn’t Lee meet face-to-face with Ewell to discuss the situation? Was Ewell responsible for a lost opportunity?

These situational variables clearly show why clear and precise orders to subordinates are so vital. School administrators begin to think about when to use discretionary and non-discretionary directives with teachers and students.

Robert E. Lee preferred issuing discretionary orders with his subordinates simply because this approach worked in the past. Did Lee commit a serious error in leadership during the first day of battle? Students begin to understand that even very effective leaders can make big mistakes. They also begin to understand how intervening variables confound decisions, alter plans and often negate operational designs.

What worked for Lee in the past was not working at Gettysburg. Initially, Robert E. Lee was fighting a Union Army consisting of neophytes, greenhorns and rookies. But at Gettysburg, Lee was confronted with soldiers who were now battle-hardened, experienced and highly qualified. These new situational factors demanded a change in leadership strategy and, unfortunately, Lee did not change his leadership strategy during this decisive three-day battle.

Robert Millward is coordinator of the administration and leadership studies at Indiana University of Pennsylvania in Indiana, Pa. E-mail: Millward@iup.edu. Twitter: @RobertEMillward


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