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Transcript: Chamberlain at Gettysburg

Watch the Video: On Leadership at Gettysburg: 'Fix Bayonets!'

Hi I'm Ed Ruggero, and I run the Gettysburg Leadership Experience, where executives travel to the battlefield at Gettysburg and we use history to talk about leadership in modern organizations. Most of the fighting at Gettysburg on July 1st came at the northern end of the federal line. Lee's plan for July 2nd was to hit the southern end of the line. Among the men standing in the way of his plan were the 300 and some odd combat veterans of the 20th regiment of Maine volunteers commanded by a thirty four year old former professor of rhetoric named Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain. Chamberlain's men are last in line and arrive at Little Round Top at the southern end of the federal line.

The Confederates are already attacking at this point; Chamberlain meets his commander on the wooded slopes and his commander says to him, " You are the extreme flank of the entire union army." The message is clear; the 20th Maine is now an anchor for the entire union line. If Chamberlain loses this position, the entire federal army could crumble, leaving Washington open to a Confederate attack. Chamberlain's men are moving into position even as the Confederates are attacking up the slopes of Little Round Top.

They are able to hold the line on the initial assault, but are quickly running out of ammunition. Chamberlain has only been in command for a year, has only been in the army for a year, there is nothing in his experience that tells him what to do. So he thinks to himself, well I can't just stay here because they are running out of ammunition, and I can't withdraw, because his boss told him this was the anchor for the entire federal army. So he's left with, as he sees it, only one choice, and that is to go forward, to attack the attacking Confederates.

Chamberlain brings in his junior officers and tells them what he wants; he wants the left ends of the regiment to swing around like a barn door until they are all on line, then to charge forward downhill. But there is nothing in the manual of drill which explains this and they have never done this before. Chamberlain has to rely on the fact that they trust him to lead them. He briefed his junior officers, gets out in front of the line where all his men can see him, tells them to fix bayonets, and leads the charge down the hill. The advancing Confederates are stunned by this, they are caught completely off guard, and the Maine men had the advantage of running downhill.

Those Confederates who do not flee are captured or killed right there on the slopes. After an entire afternoon of close quarters fighting, its over in a few minutes, as Federal soldiers sweep the Confederates off Little Round Top, saving the entire Union line, saving the entire position.

So what are the lessons that modern business leaders can take from Joshua Chamberlain's story. Well the first one has to do with creativity; faced with a brand new situation he had never seen before, and without a huge wealth of experience to call upon, Chamberlain created something that was new, he did it on the fly, and it turned out to be effective.

Another lesson we can take has to do with the clarity of our communications; Joshua Chamberlain was under almost unimaginable pressure when he brought his junior officers in and told them about the maneuver he wanted them to execute, which by the way none of them had ever heard of or seen before. His orders that day had to have been a model of clarity and brevity, he got the point across, he made them see what it was he wanted to have happen. Good leaders practice how they communicate.

Finally Chamberlain's men were willing to step up and try this new maneuver in the heat of battle because they trusted him. Trust is something we develop over time by making small deposits when people learn they can rely on us. Chamberlain had only been in uniform for only a year, but he had learned very rapidly that the key to being a successful combat commander is to combine thinking and aggressiveness. That's what he did on Little Round Top; creative leadership, coming up with a solution and then following through.

We'd like you to join our conversation on leadership: Have you ever found yourself in the situation that Joshua Chamberlain did, in some high stakes high pressure environment where you had no idea what the right answer was and you had to invent one on the spot and it better be a good one? Can we teach ourselves to be creative? How can we foster that kind of creativity, not only in ourselves but the folks who work for us as well?

By On Leadership video transcripts

 |  June 30, 2010; 1:10 PM ET
Category:  Military Leadership Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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In discussing a military leader's success, it's important to remember that there is a powerful body of research indicating that servicemembers in war fight for those around them--not for an abstract cause and not for their leaders. The loyalty of servicemembers to each other can trump a leader's errors. In August 1862, Maxcy Gregg's South Carolina brigade repelled a fourth Federal attack several days after Stonewall Jackson had arrested Gregg for allowing the brigade to burn fence rails to cook their meals. This, I suspect, they did not do for Jackson nor for Gregg, but for the other men in the ranks with them.

Posted by: jlhare1 | July 6, 2010 5:42 PM
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Colonel Strong Vincent, Chamberlain's commander, is also a fascinating study in leadership. When I take visitors to Little Round Top in our study of the battle, we spend about as much time talking about Vincent as we do about Chamberlain. Had Vincent survived, or had someone written a Pulitzer Prize winning novel with him as the protagonist (as Shaara did with Chamberlain in The Killer Angels), he'd be more famous. In a blog post or video of only a few minutes, one has to choose what to cover and what to leave out, but you've given me a good idea for a future post on Colonel Vincent.

Posted by: edruggero | July 3, 2010 3:20 PM
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A quick response to FASTAIRE. Col. Vincent was indeed a hero, and I recall that Chamberlain gives him much credit in his autobiography, which is also very short on desribing himself or his actions at Little Round Top. Your suggestion that Chamberlain was somehow a self-promoter, which got him recognition that Vincent deserved, is neither true nor fair. He, in fact, barely escaped death later in the war after being shot through both hips and carried from the field near Petersburg, with the expectation that he would die. He recovered after many months, and returned to battle, where he continued to distinguish himself as a combat commander. It was Chamberlain who was selected to receive the surrender of Lee's troops at Appomattox, and his salute of the vanquished foe's troops engendered much criticism of him immediately following the war. It was not through his own efforts, but those of his surviving men, that he was awarded the Medal of Honor for his exploits at Little Round Top thirty years after the war.

Posted by: rkinneypa | July 2, 2010 12:34 PM
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Obama is the General ; he gathers his officers and asks for advice. He listens to their advice then decides he will do what best covers his butt. He can't retreat and running out ammunition, he decides to surrender to the enemy, which then defeats the Union soldiers at Gettysburg, moves on through to take Washington an wins the war.

Obama is released from a Confederate prisoner of war camp where he declares himself an anti-war protester, blames it all on Lincoln, and calls the soldiers in his command war criminals, and baby killers. Then runs for the Senate wins and becomes the first black President 148 years earlier, but of course we are not here to read it

Posted by: jjoyce6018 | July 2, 2010 10:26 AM
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I agree with WhiteHonkey, above; that has been my experience. But, as you wrote Ruggero, trust is key. A good leader always takes care of his men; loyalty goes downward, not up; leaders lead from the front; leaders are first in, last out. It's a commitment and a gift.

Posted by: dozas | July 2, 2010 1:09 AM
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At the risk of being terribly flamed, I think you are on to something ...

What's amazing to me is that Chamberlain was able to teach one of the major elements of a confidence game so quickly - meaning, ignore the hill and move at the speed necessary to maintain relative position. This meant that some subordinates were asked to work harder than others and also some were being asked to hold back. In a confidence game, the team needs to ignore "little money" or the team will never see "big money".

How do you teach that in an MBA Program, when you are not teaching the normal Alpha Dog wins/Ethics is not useful material, of course ?

Posted by: gannon_dick | July 1, 2010 9:20 PM
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Posted by: CHUCKORSO | July 1, 2010 5:50 PM
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Leadership takes common sense, knowledge of your job, and three dimensional thinking. Today we are seeing a prime example of two dimensional thinking concerning the Gulf disaster. The EPA is blocking the use of skimmer ships because they will reintroduce water back into the ocean that has 1% oil still in it. Our Federal Government is run by people who cannot look beyond their own regulations. As if they are helpless. Ridiculous.

Posted by: bobbo2 | July 1, 2010 4:57 PM
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We named our son Joshua Lawrence 19 years ago. We have always admired JLC.

Posted by: sniezgod2 | July 1, 2010 4:56 PM
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Some people are born natural leaders, most are not. What Chamberlain did cannot be taught. What Audie Murphy did in World War II cannot be taught. A person has leadership quality or they do not. I can promise you that Chamberlain did not mentally go through a checklist before he briefed his officers, he just did it because he believed it was the right thing to do. McChrystal strikes me as this kind of leader and it is a shame indeed that his career ended the way it did.

Posted by: WhiteHonkey | July 1, 2010 3:57 PM
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I am inspired by the story of how effective Chamberlain was in gaining the trust of his troops and leading them to defend the flank of the Union Army against the confederate charge up Little Round Top. Of course, I do not really know what happened on that day, but I feel that the scene in the movie Gettysburg, where Jeff Daniels convinced a group of would be deserters to rejoin the Union Army, gives me some understanding of how he might have accomplished this task. In fact, to me, this is one of the most inspirational scenes ever depicted in a movie and I will never cease to be amazed by the fact that the heroic Chamberlain was so brilliantly portrayed by the same actor that starred with Jim Carey in the far less inspirational film, Dumb and Dumber.

I wish I could be witness to this type of leadership in real life, but what I see now is the rejection of true leadership in favor of the glorification of celebrity and demagoguery. Do you think this will ever change? I hope so because the future of our country depends on our ability as a people to recognize and accept true leadership and reject self serving political agendas.

In my mind, this glorification of celebrity and political demagoguery is most evident in the recent popularity of politicians who claim they can eliminate the deficit and improve the standard of living of the American people simply by cutting taxes. These same would be leaders will also revoke the laws of physics to stop climate change, reverse the damage caused by the Deep Water Horizon catastrophe, presumably caused by too much regulation and too little drilling, and restore the economy. All they are asking for is our vote so that they can reduce the size of the government while swelling its ranks.

Posted by: marcnyden | July 1, 2010 3:37 PM
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You ask whether any of your readers have been in a similar position as Joshua Chamberlain at Gettysburg. Yes, I was, in the Korean War with just one year's commissioned service, after hard fighting, was ordered to 'Take that Hill' (347) on October 7th, 1951. Which I learned later was occupied with a full battalion of Chinese soldiers. After three failed assault trying to direct my three platoons and coordinate supporting fires to suppress the enemy fire, a Sergeant called me on the radio and said my last lieutenant had fallen, and there were only 6 riflemen left with him. What should he do. In fact I had then lost all 6 of my officers, over the previous 15 days and all but 30 men were left out of over 169 of us who started.

So I had to do something different. I got all my forward observers and supply clerks and administrative NCOs and scared privates and went forward loaded down with grenades, lined up the 30 of us at the base of the hill, shouted at them explicitly and loudly to fire as they marched up with me, even when they did not see a target, but NOT to stop or take cover. And to cross the trench above no matter what our losses, then turn around from above and fire down back into it. A novel solution.

It was all or nothing at our last chance.

We did, and seized the hill, my mission. I had only 15 men left standing on top, but having dominated the minds of the defending Chinese as well as killing over 250 we were king of the hill, and marched 192 Chinese Prisoners of war off the hill as we were relieved at dusk.

And I am proud to say that Hill 347 'Bloody Baldy' still dominates inside the Demilitarized Zone dividing 61 years later, the free and prosperous South Koreans from the still dangerous North Koreans in their dictatorship.

I grew to my fullest leadership maturity that day. And have used what I learned there through the Vietnam War, but also during the last 42 years after retiring leading civilians in the revitalization of a part of my town.

Sure I was highly decorated for the part of that assault when I had to lead to the top, my scared and many wounded soldiers following, not wanting to either let me down or fail to do what I told them had to be done.

Your points about leadership are quite to the point. Make a new plan, communicate it forcefully, and then lead like there is no tomorrow.

Posted by: dave19 | July 1, 2010 3:07 PM
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"Chamberlain was not motivated by greed. Chamberlain was not motivated by short term profits. Chamberlain believed in a cause beyond his own personal gain and that of his shareholders."

To Captn_Ahab: In fact, he was motivated by the most visceral and acute type of self-interest: Survival.

Posted by: RandFan | July 1, 2010 2:08 PM
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Chamberlain was not motivated by greed.

Chamberlain was not motivated by short term profits.

Chamberlain believed in a cause beyond his own personal gain and that of his shareholders.

Chamberlain did not have a golden parachute.

Chamberlain did not have a position or pay that led him to believe he was significantly more deserving than those around him.

And what does any of Chamberlain's experience have anything to do with 21 century corporate "leaders"????

Posted by: captn_ahab | July 1, 2010 1:51 PM
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people that are able to think on their feet are valuable in whatever position they hold...

Posted by: mtstewart1 | July 1, 2010 12:38 PM
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Hello -- As an English teacher (which is what being a professor of rhetoric back then meant), I'd like to suggest that some of his skills in communication came from having taught good communication and having evaluated countless examples of communication from his students, ranging across a wide spectrum of effectiveness. Also, isn't handling a class of students in the 18 to 21-age range and gaining their confidence good preparation for what we are told about Chamberlain's role that day? In other words, don't underestimate the contributions of a good teacher; for some reason, most of what we hear about these days involves bad teachers. But good ones do exist, and it's tiresome to hear the constant harping on bad ones.

Posted by: jbfoster45 | July 1, 2010 11:36 AM
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Why is it that Joshua Chamberlain always gets so much credit for the success at Little Round Top while nary a word is said about the real hero of Little Round Top, Chamberlain's "boss", and fabulous leader 26 year old Colonel Strong Vincent of Erie, Pa.? I guess it was because Chamberlain was around to promote his exploits for years and years after the battle while Colonel Vincent was killed in action at the battle. Obviously during his remaining years Chamberlain must not have given much credit to Colonel Vincent. This is sad in my opinion. The narrator in the video did not even mention his name referring to Colonel Vincent as only Chamberlain's "boss". Do yourselves a favor and do some reading about Colonel Vincent's heroic during the battle. Unfortunately he did not get the chance to have all the major successes in life that Chamberlain had after Gettysburg. I am sure that had he lived he would have.

Posted by: fastaire | July 1, 2010 10:50 AM
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Read "The Killer Angels," which although a fictional account of the battle, is quite accurate about Chamberlain's role at Little Round Top (Chamberlain's autobiography is also enlightening). Then read "Band of Brothers," and compare Chamberlain's decision-making with that of Dick Winters during and after the Normandy campaign. The key to their leadership skills was their willingness to be out in front of their men, setting an example, and their complete willingness to be accountable for the decisions they made. As both wars progressed, Chamberlain and Winters became even more accomplished leaders because their men KNEW they could trust them to make the best decisions they could under the circumstances. Equally important, their men knew that they would not be asked to do anything that either commander would not also do. Leaders inspire the people who work for them because they are willingly - and transparently - accountable for the decisions they make, and neither hide from their mistakes or blame others for them. Contrast Chamberlain and Winters to Tony Hayward, BP's CEO. There's no comparison.

Posted by: rkinneypa | July 1, 2010 10:27 AM
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A correction: Chamerblain's 20th Maine was first in order of march in Vincent's Brigade, not last as I said here. Vincent emplaced his units from left to right, starting with Chamberlain and ending with the 44th New York, not the other way around.

Posted by: edruggero | July 1, 2010 9:49 AM
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Just a couple of comments:

First, as purely an historical comment, I'm not sure that Mr. Ruggero's comment that a "pivot" maneuver (also known as a "wheel" or "ploy" maneuver) was unknown and undocumented in standard infantry drill handbooks of the day: http://theminiaturespage.com/boards/msg.mv?id=180221

Second, the leadership skills that military leaders hone during military service (including high pressure combat situations) are hardly overlooked by private industry or by society overall. That former military leaders are frequently asked to employ those same leadership and crisis management skills to political roles, civilian positions in government, or the private sector is the best evidence of such awareness.

Posted by: njwolverine | July 1, 2010 9:24 AM
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I understand somewhat where the first commenter, herzliebster, is coming from but even from that perspective, many people outside of combat are in life or death or nera it situations either often or occasionally besides in combat. In hospital or accident situations, for example, and police and crime situations or actual or potential fires, in dangerous industrial situations like the initial BP accident or Bhopal or Chernobyl. Unfortunatley, there are lots of examples where making the right decision and persuading others determines whether someone's life or health is saved.

Posted by: ellenf1 | July 1, 2010 8:58 AM
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"Have you ever found yourself in the situation that Joshua Chamberlain did, in some high stakes high pressure environment where you had no idea what the right answer was and you had to invent one on the spot and it better be a good one? "

No, and neither has anyone else who hasn't been in combat.

This comparison between the Battle of Gettysburg, a 3-day battle in 90+ degree heat in which thousands upon thousands of soldiers were massacred, and ANY "business" situation, is, frankly, obscene.

Posted by: herzliebster | July 1, 2010 8:41 AM
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Perhaps tying in his experience teaching rhetoric to his ability to communicate effectively would have been clearer. His communication skills when faced with an unknown situation arguably made up for his lack of military experience.

Posted by: richnemie | July 1, 2010 7:30 AM
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Ouch! At the end of your 7th paragraph you state, "Good leaders practice how they communicate." In the very next paragraph you write, "Chamberlain had only been in uniform for only a year..."

Had I only been able to communicate like that in my life I would have only been an effective leader? Maybe you are only kidding me.

Posted by: boblund1 | July 1, 2010 6:29 AM
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