The Wire: Lessons from Gettysburg

May 2018 -

An innovative, on-site seminar created by FCC Services and held in partnership with NRECA, helps co-op leaders learn by walking the fields and studying events from one of America’s most important battles.

Few places in American history are as closely tied to a single event as Gettysburg, the small town in Pennsylvania that witnessed the largest battle of the Civil War.

Over the course of three days (July 1-3) in 1863, more than 165,000 Union and Confederate soldiers clashed over thousands of acres of rolling Pennsylvania hills and fields. The Union victory turned the tide of the war, but at a terrible cost of more than 51,000 casualties.

Not surprisingly, branches of the United States military often send leaders and students to Gettysburg to learn military tactics and leadership. Yet Gettysburg also holds clues for leaders of businesses such as electric cooperatives, which constantly face key decisions in an ever-changing market, says Pat Mangan, director of governance education for the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association (NRECA). Many of the leadership traits and decisions of battlefield officers in 1863 “relate to the conditions co-ops face in the day-to-day business environment,” Mangan says.

That’s the idea behind the Gettysburg Leadership Experience for Co-op Leaders.

The two-and-a-half day workshop, sponsored by CoBank and intended for senior leaders and board members of electric cooperatives, is held three times a year, in April, September and October.

“By providing concrete examples of things that went right during the battle and things that went wrong, the program helps participants better understand the practical lessons of management and leadership,” says Jay Morrison, vice president, regulatory issues, for NRECA.

The program includes classroom discussions and videos to set the proper historical context. But much of the true learning takes place during visits to the roughly 6,000 acres of battlefields comprising Gettysburg National Military Park, where participants can more directly imagine and even feel the movements of troops from more than 150 years ago.

“The key is being able to go out, walk the fields and put yourself back then in the 1800s,” says Al Simpson, CEO of the Arkansas Valley Electric Cooperative. “When you’re standing on the battleground, it overwhelms you.”

Simpson attended the Leadership Conference in the spring of 2015 as a district manager for the Arkansas Valley Electric Cooperative, based in Ozark, Arkansas. Now the organization’s CEO, Simpson credits the lessons he learned at the conference with helping prepare him for the daily demands of running a twenty-first century cooperative.

From Little Round Top

One of Simpson’s most memorable moments came when his group stood on Little Round Top, the hill that Union soldiers under the command of Colonel Joshua Chamberlain helped defend against a furious Confederate onslaught. Chamberlain, a college professor from Maine whose coolness under fire inspired his troops, has been cited as one of the Civil War’s least likely heroes.

Simpson’s experience underscored that “leadership is earned, not appointed,” he says – an idea with direct applications to a modern organization. Regardless of the title an executive carries, he adds, “The people following are the ones who will decide if that person is going to be their leader.”

The view from Little Round Top also helped Simpson understand the importance of gaining high ground. For an army, that means holding a hill. For the leader of a cooperative, it means periodically stepping back from the mountain of daily tasks and details to assess big-picture questions about the direction of a co-op or the industry.

“You want to be able to look around and understand what’s going on, and see problems that could be arising,” Simpson says. “If you position yourself correctly, you’re better able to address them.”

The “high ground,” in the view of NRECA’s Morrison, also can be the place you fall back to, and that you must defend no matter what. “For cooperatives, that’s our relationship with our members,” Morrison says. “That’s what we always need to protect.”

Forms of leadership

Those ideas echo a key concept covered in the workshop curriculum, anticipatory leadership. The most successful officers at Gettysburg entered the battle prepared, having studied the weather and battlefield conditions, and having considered the lessons of past battles, Pat Mangan says. “The same is true of electric cooperatives,” he adds. “Boards have to have a 5- or a 10-year vision of what’s coming. We have to look at what members want and expect of their co-op. We have to look at the regulatory environment, the legal environment, all those different things.”

Other lessons include:

  • Clarity of communication. Walling oneself off from the frank opinions of subordinates leads to overconfidence and possible defeat, whether in a military or business setting, Simpson says. And when giving directions to subordinates, he adds, it’s essential to spell out clearly what the objective is – whether holding a fortification or launching a new business initiative.
  • Transactional and transformational leadership. When a leader barks, “Because I said so!” – that’s transactional leadership, Mangan notes. It may solve a temporary problem but will hardly inspire the type of loyalty any leader needs. Transformational leadership, by contrast, “can help employees understand the grand vision, and let them feel like they are a part of making it happen,” he says.
  • Predictable surprises and negotiating difficult conversations. Most people would prefer to avoid tense conversations or reprimanding subordinates who have allowed avoidable errors to occur. Such conversations “are not pleasant, not fun, and they are going to be difficult,” Mangan says. “It’s going to cause a lot of tension. But as a leader, you’ve got to address the problem – you can’t sweep it under the rug.”

From the experience, Morrison recalls another vital aspect of leadership is to build a relationship with your “troops” so that when things get hot and heavy they will have the confidence to follow your lead. He describes a time when Chamberlain’s men had run out of ammunition and he led them in a bayonet charge down the hill with empty rifles. “We all have situations in which things aren’t what we expected, or aren’t what we’re used to,” he says. “Chamberlain had built the relationship with his troops in advance and they trusted his directions. They followed his lead and drove off the Confederates.”

Says Simpson, “I would encourage any leader of an organization to attend this course. This experience will help leaders understand the highest level of leadership.” It will also help them realize the importance of the decisions they make every day, says Morrison. “Standing on that ground where the results were achieved in blood and lead is really very inspiring.” 

Also in this issue:

  • NRECA and CoBank Discuss Rural Infrastructure with RFD-TV
  • Case Study: Gettysburg Leadership Experience

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