Corporate Leadership and the Battle of Gettysburg With Dr. Jeffrey McCausland

In this episode, I’m joined by Dr. Jeffrey McCausland, a retired U.S. Army Colonel and former Dean of Academics for the United States Army War College. He’s also the founder of the leadership development company Diamond6 and author of the book “Battle Tested!: Gettysburg Leadership Lessons for 21st Century Leaders”. Dr. McCausland is a terrific storyteller with an uncanny ability to articulate what lessons from history can teach us about the world of corporate leadership today. 

For Dr. McCausland, telling a great story to illustrate the larger point is critical to avoid boring an audience with straight concepts, and I completely agree. He uses the events that took place in the Battle of Gettysburg, one of the most important moments in both the Civil War and U.S. history, to explain how one can be a leader in today’s corporate world. Listen to our conversation about Gettysburg and how it relates to leadership, the need for a succession plan, and the value of succinctly communicating the mission and vision of your organization.

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Smart Bosses Like Being Led

Dr. McCausland talks about one of his favorite examples of leadership during the Battle of Gettysburg: the moment that a one-star general in the Union army had to make a quick decision to change his cavalry’s position to hold off approaching Confederates. The salient point here is that he didn’t waste time seeking answers from his boss, a three-star general, which would have proved disastrous. Instead, he took the initiative. His self-leadership ultimately played a role in the Union’s success at Gettysburg. And he didn’t get in trouble; the three-star general commended him for his decision.

This same idea applies to corporate leadership as well. “Smart bosses like to be led,” says Dr. McCausland. “We need to create a climate as leaders whereby we can be led, and people provide us the information we need so we can make a choice.” In addition, fostering an environment where leaders are open to feedback and smart initiatives from their employees is critical for a company’s success. For example, suppose a boss makes employees feel that they will be reprimanded for time-sensitive decisions and indicates they aren’t open to criticism. In that case, it creates a situation where employees won’t communicate the unbiased full picture. “You can get yourself in a position where only good news arrives,” he says.

Considering Your Succession Plan

Corporate leadership often finds themselves on a constant war footing. Just like in the military, people assuming this stance within organizations will eventually feel burned out. Leaders must consider their succession plan if a major event arises, but they often don’t spend enough time thinking about it. “We have one advantage over corporate America,” Dr. McCausland says, “And that is in the military, we all know what the succession is. It goes by your rank. So if this guy disappears, the next guy moves up and everybody understands it.” The military’s chain of command is clear and the transitions are smooth, something that corporate leadership can benefit from. 

The events of Gettysburg show just how intense the rate of succession can be, and how flawlessly the military handles it. According to Dr. McCausland, “The Union army on day one at Gettysburg, due to the arrival of troops and officers being killed, will go through five CEOs in one day.” Would your organization be equipped to handle such a high rate of turnover?

Communicating Your Mission and Vision

Many of us know Gettysburg through President Abraham Lincoln’s famous speech, the Gettysburg Address. Dr. McCausland talks about how the relatively short speech did a great job of communicating purpose concisely and transparently. “Any leader for any organization can use the outline of the Gettysburg Address to talk to his or her organization,” he says. 

He breaks it down into three parts that can serve as a blueprint for corporate leaders looking to communicate messages to their employees in memorable ways. 

  • Where have we been as an organization? “Four score and seven years ago…” to the signing of the Declaration of Independence, which stated that all men and women are created equal.
  • Where are we right now? Battling in the Civil War, for causes that the Union sees as just. 
  • Where are we going? Lincoln declared that preserving the Union and ending slavery are inextricably linked and that the vision for the future keeps those in mind. 

Corporate storytelling is a fantastic way to bring everyone together to carry out a company’s mission. Of course, the average CEO won’t come close to being the next great orator like Abraham Lincoln – but that certainly shouldn’t stop them from trying!

'If the leader takes care of himself or herself, then they're indirectly giving permission for everybody else to do so as well.' – Dr. Jeffrey McCausland. Hear more on this episode of Punk Rock HR! Click To Tweet

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