What I Learned about Public Leadership from Touring the Gettysburg National Military Park

Written by Dr. Randall Swain

Last spring, I had a wonderful opportunity to attend the International City/County Management Association’s (ICMA) annual leadership conference, which was held at the Gettysburg National Military Park. As a student of military history, I was excited about the prospect of a leadership conference where city and county managers from around the country would be attending, and, which would be held on the hallowed grounds of the Civil War’s largest and most costly battle. 

This battle was fought in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania over the course of three days from July 1 through July 3, 1863.  At the conclusion of the battle, General Robert E. Lee and the Confederate forces were defeated by the Union Army under the command of General George Gordon Meade. The battle at Gettysburg marked a turning point in the war and pretty much signaled the beginning of the end for the Confederacy. 

Through my service as a commissioned officer in the army, I knew most of this history and did not expect to learn much more.  How wrong I was.  What came out of the three day conference by the ICMA and the professional staff at the Gettysburg National Park were numerous leadership lessons from the battle that can be applied to leadership in contemporary public and non-profit organizations.  In the next couple of iterations of this blog, I will share a few lessons about how the challenges of leadership faced by Union and Confederate forces who squared off at Gettysburg are applicable and relevant to leadership in today’s public and non-profit sector. 

The first lesson that modern day managers and administrators can take away from any battlefield is the impact that the fog of war has on the ability of leaders and managers to implement and execute their plans.  The term, “fog of war”, was coined by Carl Von Clausewitz, a 19th century military theorist, to describe the confusion and chaos that descends on battlefields almost immediately after the commencement of hostilities. 

The combination of the smoke from rifles and cannon fire, the early morning fog, and typical noises of battle—the neighing of horses, the groans of injured and dying soldiers—were major factors in the outcome of any battle, Gettysburg included.  The broader lesson that was constantly reemphasized during the tour, is that the fog of war is an apt metaphor for the uncertainty and confusion that can afflict public and non-profit organizations. 

Whereas the uncertainty that disrupts even the most meticulously formulated military plans stem from the smoke and noises of battle, for public and non-profit organizations, the uncertainty—the fog –that threatens their strategic plans stem from numerous sources, including budgetary cutbacks, decline in public opinion among the clients an organization serves, and hiring freezes to name a few.  Moreover, because public and non-profit organizations are situated in a political context, political considerations, such as what will happen when a newly elected chief executive takes office, elevate the level of uncertainty and confusion—the fog, per se—that does not exist as much in private organizations.

Whether the fog of war can ever be completely disintegrated is doubtful, but if managed effectively, it need not disrupt and derail the objectives these organizations are trying to achieve.    The most productive leaders manage uncertainty and confusion by encouraging the formation of supportive organizational cultures and effectively utilizing electronic and information systems to their organization’s advantage. 

Furthermore, the most productive leaders put in place contingency plans designed to mitigate and buffet the organization against the consequences of decisions that stem from politics and legislative budgetary decisions.  Just as the very best generals throughout history built contingency plans into their military strategy to take into account the confusion that was sure to attend their battlefield conditions.  

Published on April 29, 2014