Decentralized Command : Gettysburg
Leadership Lessons In History, Episode 3
Leadership Lessons in History, Episode 3: Decentralized Command
In 1863 in the American Civil War, there was a cavalry commander on the Union side whose name was Major General John Buford, and he stepped up and made a decision that he didn’t have to do. But if he had not made that decision, it probably would’ve changed the entire outcome of the Battle of Gettysburg, which ultimately changed the entire outcome of the American Civil War. Before we dive into the Battle of Gettysburg in this example of decentralized command, let’s talk about what was going on in the America Civil War during the summer of 1863.
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Leif Babin (00:06):
In today’s episode of Leadership Lessons in History, we’re going to talk about decentralized command. This is a concept that is really hard for people, that don’t have actual military experience, to understand because oftentimes we think of military leadership as simply just ordering people to do things, robots carrying out those orders without any ability to question those orders. The reality is, the best, most effective units in the military, just like the best teams out there, employ decentralized command. What decentralized command means is that everybody leads. Everybody leads. Everybody understands the overall goal, and the purpose, and the end state that we’re trying to achieve. They’re able to step up and lead, and overcome obstacles, and make decisions, and make things happen to move the team forward in a positive direction toward that overarching goal. That’s the power of decentralized command. One great example of that is the Battle of Gettysburg.
In 1863 in the American Civil War, there was a cavalry commander on the Union side whose name was Major General John Buford, and he stepped up and made a decision that he didn’t have to do. But if he had not made that decision, it probably would’ve changed the entire outcome of the Battle of Gettysburg, which ultimately changed the entire outcome of the American Civil War. Before we dive into the Battle of Gettysburg in this example of decentralized command, let’s talk about what was going on in the America Civil War during the summer of 1863. General Robert E. Lee is in command of the army of Northern Virginia. That’s the major army in the east for the Confederates. General Meade has been placed in charge of the army of the Potomac. That’s the major army in the east for the Union.
General Robert E. Lee and his army in northern Virginia, on the Confederate side, they have been victorious in pretty much every major battle that they’ve been a part of. They’re seven and oh, and you could count Antietam is a tie, so seven, oh, and one, going into the summer of 1863. They’re just coming off the greatest victory of the Confederates in the east under Lee’s command, the Battle of Chancellorsville in May of 1863. They have defeated the Union Army over and over and over again in engagements where they have been outnumbered, they’ve been outgunned, and yet through leadership they’ve been victorious.
So General Lee’s goal is to take his Confederate army and move them into the north to try to threaten Philadelphia, threaten Baltimore, threaten Washington, DC, and ultimately try to bring the Union to the negotiating table to end the war. On the other side, on the Union side, they have pulled back across the Potomac after they lost the Battle of Chancellorsville, and they’re licking their wounds. They’re headquartered in Maryland, and now under the command of General Meade who’s been a newly promoted commander, and they don’t have any of the confidence that Lee’s men have on the Confederate side. The army of the Potomac on the Union side, they’re thinking they’ve never stopped the army of Northern Virginia. How are they going to stop them now?
Now they’ve got the word coming to them that Lee’s army has invaded the north. They’re trying to find them, to try to locate them, and they want to be able to stop them before they can do any further damage or threaten those major cities and populations in the north. So the reconnaissance force for the Union Army that’s out looking for Robert E. Lee and his Confederate army, they know they’re in Pennsylvania somewhere, but they’re not sure exactly where. The reconnaissance force is the calvary. The Union Calvary is under the command of Major General John Buford.
John Buford was a West Point graduate. He served on the Great Plains and was an experienced Calvary commander. He knows that his job as Calvary is to locate the army, Northern Virginia, the Confederates, and send word back to his commanders to notify them where they are so that they can then make some decisions. On the morning of June 30th, 1863, General Buford and his cavalryman ride into the town of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. Gettysburg is a critical road junction. As they move into the town of Gettysburg, they see that the towns people are in panic. They look down the Chambersburg Pike, which is a road coming in from the northwest, and they see about 40,000 Confederate soldiers marching, just line upon line upon line of Confederates marching for as far as they can possibly see.
All Buford has to do is to mount his troops up, ride back, and tell his boss, and everyone would’ve said, “Hey, great job.” But that’s not what Buford does. Buford recognizes that if Confederate forces march into the town of Gettysburg, this is a critical road junction, they’re going to seize the high ground around the town, and by the time Union forces are able to maneuver, the Confederate are going to have all the advantage in the world. So what Buford does is dismount his troops. He has less than 3,000 troops, and only six artillery pieces, and he attacks this force of 40,000 Confederate troops that are marching into Gettysburg. He knows he’s not going to win that battle, but all he’s trying to do is delay their arrival enough so that Union forces can push ahead and seize the high ground, and have the tactical advantage over the Confederate forces. That’s what Buford does. He dismounts his guys along what’s called McPherson’s Ridge, to stop the Confederates that are coming down the Chambersburg Pike.
Buford’s guys delay them long enough so that he can send word back to General Reynolds, who then pushes forward, moves troops up, and Union forces are able to seize the high ground as a result. So by the time the Confederates get into the town of Gettysburg, Union forces have seized the critical Cemetery Hill and Cemetery Ridge. Gettysburg turned the entire tide of the war as a result of that, and all through the actions of this one commander, Major General John Buford.
That is a power of decentralized command. When everybody on the team understands the overall strategic goal that you’re trying to achieve, you’re going to have a team that is unstoppable. What is required for decentralized command? Well, first of all, everybody has to understand commander’s intent. Everybody on the team has to understand the overall purpose, and the goal, and the end state that you’re trying to achieve. I’m not talking about just the immediate team, I’m talking about the overall team, the strategic objectives that you’re trying to accomplish. You have to know that, and you have to make sure everybody in your team understands that. Otherwise, how can you be aligned to move the team forward in a positive direction?
The other thing you have to understand is parameters. Where can you make decisions, and where can’t you make decisions? What Buford did in this situation, not only did he dismount his team and fight, but he actually sent a message back to his commanders to inform them about the situation, to let them know what he was doing and why he was doing it, and to tell them to push their troops forward as fast as possible so that they could come into the town of Gettysburg and seize the high ground. You want to make sure that you’re building a team of leaders, so that you have those Bufords who can step up and lead. You do that by explaining why, the purpose, the goal, the end state, and the parameters where they can make decisions, where they can’t make decisions.
That doesn’t just happen overnight. You actually have to spend time to make sure everybody in your team knows and understands, not just what to do but why they’re doing it. You have to build up that trust and confidence in them so that they can execute toward moving the team in a positive direction to accomplish those goals. I’ve had the opportunity to stand right there on McPherson’s Ridge numerous times, and think about General Buford and his decision-making, and analyze that with numerous groups of leaders that come and attend our Echelon Front battlefield, where we examine the leadership lessons of history and look at how you can take those lessons and apply them directly to your worlds.
What these leaders from all walks of life always ask is, “How do I get more Bufords on my team? How do I create Bufords?” People often think that they’re doing a great job by simply just doing what they’re told to do. You need them to understand, not just what to do but why they’re doing it. You’ve got to explain the why, and make sure that they understand the purpose, and the goal, and the end state you’re trying to achieve. You’ve got to empower them, to give them the confidence to step up and make decisions, to understand those parameters where they can make decisions, and outside of which they can’t make decisions. So that they can execute with confidence. But you still need them, even if it’s above their pay grade, to make a decision. You want leaders on your team at every level of the team who are going to at least make a recommendation on how to solve a problem. You don’t want people who are dependent on you to solve all their problems. That becomes a centralized organization, and that is not going to be an effective team.
If you want to be a Buford and step up and lead, then you got to make sure that you have absolute confidence in the commander’s intent of what you’re trying to do. Your boss isn’t a mind reader, so if you don’t know those things, you got to go ask the questions and you got to do it with a proper tags, tone, and delivery so that you’re going to get the answers that you need, and you’re going to build the relationships in your chain of command, and that you can be empowered to actually step up and lead. That is the power of decentralized command. A team of leaders at every level of the organization, from the senior leaders, to the mid-level managers, to the frontline leaders, to the individual contributors who aren’t in charge of anybody else but just themselves and their piece of the mission.
If everybody understands commander’s intent, the purpose, and the goal, and the end state, why they’re doing what they’re doing, and everybody understands the parameters where they can make decisions, and outside of which they can’t make decisions, but they can at least make a recommendation up the chain of command to solve problems, you’re going to have a team of leaders at every level that can step up and lead. That’s who you need to be. Be the John Buford who is moving your team forward in a positive direction to contribute to the overall successful outcome. That’s the power of decentralized command.