Civil War History For M.B.A.’s

A couple of years ago a book was published that purportedly offered leadership lessons based on Robert E. Lee’s generalship.  If I noticed it on the bookshelves I probably just stared at it with a blank look on my face or perhaps let out a slight chuckle.  Now we have a business professor from the prestigious Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania who is using Lee’s decision making at Gettysburg to analyze what author Michael Useem calls a "go point."  What is a go point you ask?  According to the author it is "that decisive moment when the essential information has been gathered, the pros and cons are weighed, and the time has come to get off the fence." In the course of the writing of this book the author took 33 mid-career managers from major companies to Gettysburg: "As they gazed across the now sacred ground of the battlefield, our mid-career managers and M.B.A. students were reminded of the importance of seeing ahead, of thinking strategically, of appreciating the full picture before reaching big decisions," Useem writes.  According to Useem there are five go points connected to Lee’s decision ordering the "Pickett-Pettigrew" assault at the Union center on July 3, 1863.

1. The decision by the Confederate leadership, at Lee’s prodding, to take the war to the North and try to force a political accommodation with the Union.

2. President Lincoln’s decision to make Gen. George Meade the commander of the Army of the Potomac, replacing Gen. Joseph Hooker.

3. Confederate Gen. Richard Ewell’s failure to attack Cemetery Hill and Culp’s Hill when they were still vulnerable, depriving Lee’s army of a chance to outflank the Union forces. Ewell, who replaced Stonewall Jackson after Jackson was mistakenly killed by his soldiers at Chancellorsville two months earlier, did not act, because Lee’s order left him too much discretion and because he was unprepared for that level of decision-making. [The price of not knowing the literature]

4. Union brigade commander Strong Vincent’s decision to take his 1,500-man brigade to Little Round Top and defend that vital high point, although he had not been ordered to do so. Vincent recognized the strategic importance of Little Round Top and took the risk. [Thank you Michael Shaara]

5. Meade’s decision to confer with his nine top generals on whether to maintain their positions and defend or to attack, and if to attack, when – contrasted with Lee’s decision to attack the Union center, made without seeking the advice of Gen. James Longstreet and others who opposed the attack. [Is he serious?]

And what are the business lessons that can be pulled from all of this?  Among other things business leaders need to embrace the strategic offensive along with an appreciation of the limitations of others in the chain of command, and the importance of consultation. 

At some point I am going to write a self-help book for families and couples that are dealing with some kind of serious trauma that prevent them from reuniting.  I will use the stories of reconciliation and reunion from Appomattox to make my points.  Now that’s sure to be a best-seller.  What do you think?

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6 comments… add one

  • Johnny Dec 10, 2006

    Sounds like it was a fun excuse to take a vacation to Gettysburg.

  • GreenmanTim Dec 10, 2006

    First, The Art of War was required MBA reading. Now “The Killer Angels?” But why stop there? We could have the David Farragut doctrine of Mideast diplomacy: “Damn the torpedos, full speed ahead!” Kind of like “Stay the course”, as long as it is also “the way forward.”

  • Justin Felux Dec 11, 2006

    Kevin,

    Could you elaborate on your commentary? When you say “The price of not knowing the literature” I presume you are referring to Pfanz’s work on Ewell that exonerates him of the major charges typically leveled against him with regards to his performance on the first day. Am I correct?

    And what do you mean by the “Is he serious” line? I don’t see anything wrong with that particular factoid, aside from the obvious fact that Lee did confer with Longstreet, he simply did not agree with him. If it were re-worded to emphasize the point that Lee should’ve listened more closely to the advice of his subordinates I don’t see what the problem would be.

  • Justin Felux Dec 11, 2006

    Good one, GreenmanTim. I have been contemplating a monograph that considers what the Tullahoma Campaign can tell us about how to maintain a healthy sex life.

  • Kevin Levin Dec 11, 2006

    Justin, — Don’t make too much of my little commentary, but you are correct that I am referring to the work of historians like Harry Pfanz and others who have written in response to that assumption. It is a deeply engrained assumption that could probably quality as a Civil War meme. As to the point re: Lee and Longstreet I thought the point was overly simplistic.

  • Airminded Dec 13, 2006

    The air strategist as business guru

    Frederick Lanchester was a clever British engineer. He was one of the pioneers of the British automotive industry, but his main interest was in aviation, particularly aerodynamic theory. In my opinion, he has a good claim to be the first person to eluc…

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