retail news in context, analysis with attitude

by Michael Sansolo

All things considered, there are few places to get better management lessons than a simple field in southern Pennsylvania. So with the nation’s students heading back to school, it seemed an apt time to visit Gettysburg and revisit some of the incredible lessons offered from the linchpin battle of the Civil War and the ghosts of those who fought and died there.

Gettysburg is an unusual memorial, where travelers today can ride around the entire perimeter of the battlefield and learn about the past. What captures your eyes more than the endless memorials to regiments and states, is the size of the battle field. At once it looks both small and large, giving a sense of just how close both armies were, but also how vast the number of men was too. It’s impossible to avoid letting the history - and the lessons - surround you.

For instance, there is a spot near Seminary Ridge where Confederate General Robert E. Lee rode out solemnly one afternoon to view his men returning from the failed assault known as Pickett’s Charge. As the men returned, Lee had two issues in mind: first, his concern that the Union forces would counter-attack his badly battered troops, and second, that he needed to admit that the ill-fated assault was his own fault.

Think about that second point. Lee erred and admitted it directly to his men, an occurrence that would shock us today in any field. But as the historical information scattered around Gettysburg points out that Lee owed that apology. He launched the assault ill-advisedly by overestimating the strength of his forces and underestimating the opposing army. Once again, a classic business mistake of not facing the facts.

While virtually all of Gettysburg is a lesson in management, possibly the greatest lessons come from the small rocky hilltop know as Little Round Top. If Gettysburg was the critical battle of the war, Little Round Top was the pivotal point in that battle. The small hill offered the Union forces a commanding position and one that, had they lost it, would have doomed their army.

Despite its importance, the Union generals never really gave the hill the support it needed. The stories are endless about how individual Union officers barely rallied sufficient troops to repel attack after attack on the hill. It’s a lesson on remembering to focus on what’s most important and to ensure that sufficient resources are always applied to your most important assets.

Yet, in many ways, the Union was saved by some fortunate choices in personnel, another great parallel to business. First, some of the key Union officers included men who understood terrain (the man who would later design the Brooklyn Bridge was among them) and they adroitly managed their troops to maximum advantage.

Second, down a small wooded path are signs that quietly herald the exploits of the 20th Maine regiment commanded by Col. Joshua Chamberlain. If Little Round Top was the key to the battle, the flank guarded by the 20th Maine was the key to Little Round Top. It was a position that the Confederates should have taken thanks to superior numbers and arms that day, but a creative counter-attack dreamed up by Chamberlain turned the battle and kept the strategic hill in Union hands.

I’ve written about Chamberlain before and probably will again because his lesson may be one of the best for any executive or manager to consider. The unheralded officer who with creativity and courage to change history by understanding that defeat was not an option and that the standard rules weren’t going to work.

It reminds you that there is always much to learn from history and especially from the ghosts at a place like Gettysburg.

Michael Sansolo can be reached via email at msansolo@morningnewsbeat.com . His new book, “THE BIG PICTURE: Essential Business Lessons From The Movies,” co-authored with Kevin Coupe, is available by clicking here .
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