PM History Lessons: Gettysburg
PM History Lessons: Gettysburg
by Paul Bruno
In the summer of 1863, Confederate General Robert E. Lee invaded the North in an attempt to provoke a climactic confrontation in the Civil War. Lee’s invasion failed when he lost at The Battle of Gettysburg. This historic battle offers a number of practical lessons for present-day project leaders.
Many historical events and milestones meet the definition of a project as a “temporary endeavor with a defined beginning and end that is undertaken to meet unique goals and objectives, which will typically bring about beneficial change or added value.” The goal of the PM Lessons from History series is to provide practical knowledge applicable to today’s projects while exploring some history along the way.
The Battle of Gettysburg took place July 1-3, 1863 outside a small town in the state of Pennsylvania. The United States Civil War had gone badly for the North in the eastern U.S. for the first two years of the war. Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, part of the armies of the Confederacy, was fresh off a stunning victory over the Army of the Potomac, part of the armies of the Union, at Chancellorsville, Virginia. In May 1863 Lee’s army invaded the north in a gamble to achieve an overwhelming victory and win the war for the South. Lee’s army was at its greatest strength, well-led, and supremely confident. The Army of the Potomac was under untested leadership and demoralized after suffering numerous defeats. The stage was set for a major Southern victory, but history did not turn out as expected.
Lee’s invasion failed when he lost at The Battle of Gettysburg. By examining the events surrounding the battle a number of practical lessons can be learned and applied by present-day project leaders.
1. Give clear and concise direction
At the beginning of the campaign, Lee gave his cavalry commander, General J.E.B. Stuart, wide latitude in his orders. Stuart chose to ride around to the east of the Union army (the more adventurous choice), effectively leaving Lee blind in enemy territory. Lee should have ordered his flamboyant subordinate in clear language to focus on the boring job of reconnoitering ahead of the army, which would have kept Lee apprised of enemy troop movements and strength, vital information for an invading army. Units of his blind Army, searching for supplies, especially shoes, stumbled upon Union forces outside of Gettysburg, and a skirmish grew into a battle.
It is important to give clear and concise direction as a project manager, without micromanaging. It is also important to ensure that individuals working on your project know the amount of latitude they have in their tasks as well as understanding the consequences of their actions or they too may ride off searching for glory.
2. Ensure that your information sources are in place
Stuart’s example also highlights the importance of having your communication and reporting channels in place, commonly known as the communication and reporting plans for larger projects. These structures need to provide the right information at the right time, without which a project manager can stumble headfirst into disaster.
3. Listen to your experts; assess rationally; maintain humility
Lee’s army had swept the Union forces from the field on day one of the battle, but through errors by his generals on the ground, and some luck on the part of the Union forces, the Army of the Potomac had fallen back to the high ground outside of Gettysburg. Lee’s generals (subject matter experts) counseled falling back, but Lee’s warrior’s blood was running high and he choose to continue the battle under unfavorable conditions because he believed that his Army was capable of anything. By not listening to his subject matter experts, letting his emotions cloud his decisions, and being overconfident, Lee missed an opportunity to take advantage of his first day victory by fighting another day under more favorable conditions.
As a project manager, listen closely and make sure you understand what your team members are telling you. Stephen Covey in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People spells this out clearly as Habit 5, “seek first to understand, then to be understood.” Madelyn Burley-Allen in her book Listening: The Forgotten Skill states there is a connection between listening skills, improved interpersonal communication, professional growth, and career satisfaction. In the end, if your team counsels and the situation warrants, do not automatically rule out taking one step back to take two steps forward as long as you can sell the decision.
Emotions can run high during a project. Put in place a mechanism that works for you and will allow you to remain calm under pressure. Lastly, remain humble no matter how well your project is going for. As the Bible says, “pride goes before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall.”
4. Be willing to admit mistakes
Lee’s attack on the second day of the battle almost succeeded in turning the Union left flank, but through the heroic efforts of Colonel Joshua Chamberlain and the 20th Maine at Little Round Top, the Union line held. Lee’s army, now seriously depleted, but still with reserves, could have retreated and retain the strength to continue the invasion or return to Virginia to carry on the war with the possibility of invading again at another time. However, Lee could not bring himself to disengage from the battle, and chose to use his remaining reserves in a last ditch attack to win the battle and the war.
Dale Carnegie, in his seminal work How to Win Friends and Influence People, stated the following as a key human relations principle, “If you are wrong admit it quickly and emphatically.” As a project manager it is imperative to be able to admit mistakes and be flexible to pursue new paths to the goal when necessary. As Carnegie explains, “isn’t it much easier to listen to self-criticism than to bear condemnation from alien lips?” Unless a project manager is willing to admit mistakes and take corrective action swiftly, a bad situation will most assuredly get worse.
In the end, Lee’s character shown through as he took the full blame for the failure stating, “I and I alone have lost this battle.”
5. Watch your health
Lee suffered from heart trouble which first surfaced during the Battle of Chancellorsville and was exacerbated by the stress of the Gettysburg fight. The conjecture is that these health problems may have impacted his decision-making and helps to explain a number of uncharacteristically bad decisions that he made during the battle. Lee not being at his best cost the South, and his army, dearly.
While it is always difficult to maintain a work/life balance, a project manager must make the effort to do so by maintaining a healthy body through exercise, proper nutrition and rest, but also a sound mind through reading, taking courses, playing games or other “intellectual leisure activities.”
6. Avoid all-or-nothing decisions
Lee’s ill-advised frontal attack against an entrenched enemy in a strong defensive position was named Pickett’s charge, after General George Edward Pickett whose division led the fateful attack. Brigadier General Lewis Armistead’s brigade made it the farthest, known as the High Water Mark of the Confederacy, but the effort failed miserably and left the Confederate Army broken and vulnerable to a counterattack. If the Army of the Potomac had aggressively pursued Lee’s retreating army his entire force may have been captured against a swollen Potomac River. However, the Army of the Potomac was also suffering terribly from massive casualties, making an aggressive pursuit difficult at best. In the end, the estimated number of casualties at the Battle of Gettysburg is approximately 46,000 — 23,055 in the Union Army and 23,231 in the Confederate Army.
During a project it is important to maintain as many options as possible for any given situation and avoid the “all in” scenario unless it is absolutely impossible not to do so. While the upside of the “go for broke’ strategy may be enormous, the downside can be just as big. The project manager has to decide if the risk is worth the reward and if she/he can live with the consequences of defeat. It is clearly better to avoid an all-or-nothing situation if possible.
At the start of the invasion General Robert E. Lee and his army had all the advantages and appeared poised to achieve great success. A lack of timely information through not providing clear direction led to the ill-advised action of a subordinate; poor command decisions due to clouded judgment from a failure to listen, emotionalism, and inflexibility; health problems; and a one roll of the dice mentality, Lee lost the battle and the South eventually lost the war.
A project manager, in the heat of battle, is just as susceptible to these dangers as a general in the field. By taking steps to avoid the mistakes of Robert E. Lee you can increase the odds of your projects being successful, or in military parlance, achieving a major victory!
Previously in the PM History Lessons series: “The First Jeep”
Paul Bruno, PgMP, PMP is a Project Manager with the City of Henderson, Nevada with 25 years experience in IT. He holds Master’s Degrees in Business Administration and History, and Bachelor’s Degrees in Computer Software and Management. He is also the host of the History Czar Internet radio program
Previously published at: Projects At Work, www.projectsatwork.com