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Transcript: John Buford at Gettysburg

Watch the video: On Leadership at Gettysburg: 'Find those Confederate forces'

The Battle of Gettysburg, in 1863, was the turning point of the American Civil War. It also happens to be the most written about battle of any American war. The characters are compelling, the situations are compelling, and for a couple of days in July of 1863, the fate of the nation hung in the balance.

I'm Ed Ruggero, I run the Gettysburg Leadership Experience, where executives travel to the battlefield of Gettysburg, and we use history to talk about leadership in modern organizations.

The Gettysburg Campaign starts when Robert E. Lee leads his army of Confederate soldiers in an invasion of Maryland and Pennsylvania. The Federal Army, moving north from Virginia and the Washington area, is hot on his heels. Out in front of that federal army is a 37-year-old cavalry officer named John Buford. Buford's job is to find Robert E. Lee.

John Buford is the kind of leader that every organization dreams about having; he is a man that understands the big picture and is not afraid to make decisions. Buford has served 16 years in the cavalry, most of it fighting out West. Because he is a cavalryman he is used to operating far away from headquarters that is he is used to operating without a lot of guidance, he's a man that's not afraid to make a decision. His job as he moves north into Pennsylvania is find those Confederate forces.

Here's what John Buford knows on the afternoon of June 30, 1863: He has identified some of Lee's confederate infantry north and west of the town of Gettysburg, which means Lee's Army is not far away. Because he's a professional soldier he knows that inaction is not an option. As he thinks about the way things might unfold here two scenarios occur to him.

First is that Robert E. Lee and the Confederates get to Gettysburg first, they occupy that high ground, they dig in, and the Federal Army, strung out over 40 miles from here to Washington, arrives and attacks piecemeal and suffers heavy casualties.

The other scenario is that if Buford can hold off the Confederate infantry with his small force of cavalrymen and if he can get a message to the nearest federal infantry, and convince their commander Major General John Reynolds to hurry up and get to Gettysburg to occupy this high ground, then just maybe he will have set up a battle where Robert E. Lee is forced to attack a strong federal position instead of the other way around.

Buford also has a soldier's eye for the ground, and he notices the low hills south of Gettysburg will make an excellent position from which to fight. He sends an urgent message to John Reynolds and he waits for the confederate advance.

That is plan that Buford comes up with on the afternoon of June 30. And sure enough on July 1st, the next morning, the Confederates come towards the town of Gettysburg. Buford's dismounted cavalrymen engage them and try to hold them off. For two hours Buford watches this battle unfold from the cupola of the Lutheran Theological Seminary in Gettysburg, which overlooks the whole battlefield and the confederate advance. And just when he thinks his unit is about to be overrun, he looks to the south, and he can see the federal infantry approaching, and there in the front is Major General John Reynolds, the man to whom he had sent the urgent message. The two generals get together and they ride forward to emplace the federal infantry.

The battle seesaws back and forth over the next three days, but Buford's decision to fight the battle here gave the Federal Army the critical advantage. Robert E. Lee would never again come so close to winning the war as he did at Gettysburg. Even today, John Buford is every cavalry soldier's hero; he brought all of his experience to bear at a decisive moment and made a critical decision that set his force up for victory in an important battle.

John Buford has lessons to offer leaders of modern organizations. The first is that no plan can account for every single contingency, so senior leaders need to give guidance that allows subordinates to make decisions, just as John Buford did as he rode into Gettysburg. With no specific guidance on choosing a battlefield, he nevertheless knew that task fell on his shoulders. Another lesson is that leaders need to act decisively.

So the question for us becomes, do the John Bufords in our organizations know that they are supposed to step up and act? Are we creating an environment to encourage those John Bufords out there? Every business faces the situation that is analogous to that which Buford faced on the ridge there on July 1st; that is uncertainty, high stakes and high pressure. Do your direct reports know, in those situations, that it is time for them to step up: To assess the situation, to make a decision, and then to act on those decisions?

This was transcribed by Ian Saleh.


Questions to encourage a conversation around leadership:

We'd like to hear from readers. Tell us about your ideas and experiences. Feel free to comment on stories from other readers.

What do you do to encourage your junior leaders to act and make decisions when they find themselves without specific guidance? How do they know they're supposed to take charge?

Tell us about when you learned that, as a leader, you were getting paid to come up with solutions on your own instead of always asking for guidance.

Sometimes junior leaders make decisions that backfire. What do you do to help people recover from failure and learn from their mistakes?

There is plenty of evidence to suggest that failure makes for a great teaching moment. Tell us about a failure you experienced or witnessed and how it became an important lesson.

By On Leadership video transcripts

 |  April 19, 2010; 10:32 AM ET
Category:  Military Leadership Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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The real hero of Gettysburg was Colonel Strong Vincent of Erie, Pennsylvania, not Joshua Chamberlain and not John Buford. Because Colonel Vincent lost his life in the battle he is largely forgotten. He was not around after the war to prop up his legacy like the others.

Posted by: Train413 | April 25, 2010 10:52 PM
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I will stay away from the historical histrionics...As we all know there are alot of people who seem to have a strange lens when resurrecting the Confederacy as a noble response to a "War of Northern aggression". Not that business is immune from such redrafting of reality.

From a business standpoint (having been an executive in both private and public sector for the past 35 years) Buford would be (figuratively) shot in most modern organizations. Actaully, he would have been shown the door within six months or replaced by someone's protege, on the basis that his abrupt style and independence were inconsistent with the normal flow of operations.

He is what is called a 'doer'. He gets the dirty work done when it desperately needs to be done, and the regulars are hiding under their desks. As things settle out, and there is the return of some sort of normalcy to the business, the regulars who intentionally stayed out the fray return and don't appreciate the 'got-things-done' interloper. The doer is loved by the troops and despised by the manager's circle. It is something we are increasingly seeing from graduates bred in our current business school climate.

One colleague called it naivete when we discussed this the other day. Another said, no, the current crop is unbelievably 'shallow'. The more cynical at the table said, these folks have never managed a team at McDonalds, and they think they can make decisions in a vacuum because the results will be dealt with by someone else. A variant of 'kicking the can down the road...".

Buford would be what we used to call on the executive floor 'dead meat'.

Actually, we had a systems analysis turn of the phrase for what happened to the guys who, like General Buford, did what had to be done. It was called the 'crucifiction of the implementors and rewarding of the uninvolved'.

That's why the US has become a third rate industrial nation.

Posted by: poorrichard | April 23, 2010 4:29 PM
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"Trust but Verify"

Posted by: kdl123 | April 23, 2010 9:57 AM
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"Executive training "is a bogus attempt to try and relate anything to military experience. Most executives went thru hell and high water to duck serving in the military,,they would better be served teaching and relating to that.Bunch of non serving pukes.
" Cavalry lends tone to what would otherwise be a disorganized brawl"

Posted by: gonville1 | April 23, 2010 8:40 AM
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Lee should have been arrested and shot for sending his men throught that "draw" at Gettysburg. What's the excuse there?
Would that be,
Command of failure or failure of Command?

Overall the Campaign itself was flawed and that still rests solely on Lee.
What good are socks without shoes?

Replacement of Mclellan?

Posted by: EarthCraft | April 22, 2010 11:36 AM
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Dricks' comment on JEB Stuart is valid, though there is a critical difference between his situation and Buford's. Buford's actions were based on a clear understanding of the big picture, where Stuart seemed to ignore his boss's big picture concerns, i.e. mount a successful invasion. As for keeping a close eye on subordinates and ensuring prompt reporting, that becomes more important with less experienced leaders; I don't think Stuart fell into that category. It's almost as if he was determined to let Lee down. What do you think?
And to RFREIS: how about Gettysburg as "a turning point" of the war?

Posted by: edruggero | April 22, 2010 9:24 AM
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Buford's decision and action contributed to the Union's success, but that does not support the conclusion that managers should delegate more authority to their subordinates. JEB Stuart's Confederate cavalry provide the definitive counterexample. Lee had given Stuart the same freedom to act, but Stuart squandered it attacking peripheral targets like a wagon train. He got bogged down in the rear and failed to deliver timely intelligence about the Union's vulnerability on the east and south. The lesson from Lee and Stuart would have been to keep a close eye on your subordinates and make sure that they report promptly.

Posted by: dricks | April 21, 2010 11:45 AM
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The problem with most current organizations is that individual managers do not perceive themselves as part of the larger organization as Buford did in this case. Managers make decisions only in their best interest, which in most cases is to not stick their neck out, hence indecision. Bravery as described in this battlefield scenario is rarely seein the corporate world, where decisiveness is often punished, and selfishness and CYA (cover your ass) is rewarded. The singular short-term profit-driven dynamic must be changed if you want true leadership for the long term.

Posted by: caribou | April 21, 2010 9:49 AM
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Ed:

Turning point of the war? Way oversimplified. Every heard of Vicksburg?

Posted by: rfreis | April 21, 2010 9:36 AM
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