Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

Gettysburg battlefield holds lessons for today's leaders

Compared with what Union and Confederate soldiers suffered those three deadly days in July 1863, conditions on the Gettysburg battlefield were a dream for these troops.

Ed Ruggero leads a class at the Gettysburg National Military Park.
Ed Ruggero leads a class at the Gettysburg National Military Park.Read moreMichael Bupp / For the Inquirer

Compared with what Union and Confederate soldiers suffered those three deadly days in July 1863, conditions on the Gettysburg battlefield were a dream for these troops.

The temperature was a no-jacket-required 72 degrees. Food was plentiful. Suffering amounted to sore feet and low cellphone batteries by the time Ed Ruggero and his brigade concluded their daylong assault at McPherson Ridge, the Peach Orchard, Little Round Top, and the site of Pickett's Charge.

Then again, this mission was not to conquer and destroy, it was how to lead in 21st-century corporate America. Ruggero, a West Point graduate and career Army officer, was using the pivotal Civil War battle to teach the skills needed.

"In combat, there are high-stakes decisions on tight time lines with imperfect information and often facing novel situations, so businesspeople very quickly see there are a lot of parallels and principles that apply," Ruggero said of his use of the slaughter fields of Gettysburg as his classroom.

His Gettysburg Leadership Experience (details at is a three-day executive-training program priced at $3,450 a person, including lodging and meals. It has attracted about 1,200 participants in the 10 years Ruggero has offered it. (Other excursions include to Normandy, France.)

Required of enrollees is not just comfortable footwear, but an open mind.

"I have people who resist the notion that you can learn anything from these old lessons - until they hear the stories," said Ruggero, 59, who grew up in Lindenwold.

He cowrote the Army's official doctrine, "Army Leadership", and taught at West Point. Now a resident of Wallingford, he is the author of 11 books and an international speaker on leadership.

For his Gettysburg tour, Ruggero has partnered with former Navy man Dennis F. Haley, CEO of executive-training company Academy Leadership in King of Prussia, his coauthor on two books on business leadership, The Corporate Compass and The Leader's Compass.

The wisdom of a leadership program conducted at Gettysburg National Military Park was instantly apparent to Haley, who served in Vietnam.

"Because you're there at the battlefield, you have an emotional connection you'll never forget," Haley said. "Sitting in a classroom, you'll never get that experience."

And there's Ruggero, he said: "Ed's a storyteller."

One who gets his points across not in reenactment gear but in the modern-day leisure uniform of jeans, sneakers, and Ray-Bans. His method of transport is a minibus. (He likes his groups no larger than 15.)

On the October Tuesday that he conducted his 10th Gettysburg tour of the year, Ruggero's charges were four women and two men from Florida, Colorado, New York, and Pennsylvania.

First stop was just after 8:30 a.m. on Buford Avenue - named after John Buford, a Union officer whose leadership was credited with saving the battle, and possibly the war, and was recognized by President Abraham Lincoln.

Arriving at Gettysburg before the Confederate Army was fully amassed, Buford recognized the value of the high ground south of town and protected it until Union forces arrived to take up defensive positions. With no specific instructions from his superiors, he assessed, decided, and acted, Ruggero told the business leaders.

"My question for you is: 'If you want John Bufords in your organization, what kind of environment do you have to create?' "

Sandy Smith, a logistics and supply-chain leader at Honeywell Aerospace in Colorado, offered a response Ruggero liked, with conditions.

"You have to allow for mistakes," Smith said. "You can't crucify someone if they make a mistake."

There have to be limits, Ruggero countered: "As a leader, I have to figure out how to allow you to lead without sinking the ship."

At the Peach Orchard, where Union Gen. Daniel Sickles advanced troops over Gen. George Meade's orders, instead of occupying the critical high ground of Little Round Top, Ruggero sought feedback on fostering team players.

"Communication is probably the key," said Auburn Taylor, who heads the parks and recreation department in Haines City, Fla. Several changes in the city manager's post there have led to "a struggle at the line level to buy into the change of the culture."

What helps with that is answering the " 'What's-in-it-for-me?' question," as well as clarity of purpose, Ruggero said.

Little Round Top is one of the most-visited spots on the battlefield because of Michael Shaara's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Killer Angels, required reading for all of Ruggero's tour participants. There, Ruggero delivered a dramatic recounting of the charge down the rocky slope by the extreme left flank of the Union Army, led by Col. Joshua Chamberlain of Maine, a professor of rhetoric at Bowdoin College before the war.

Armed with bayonets and maneuvering across the hill like a hinged door, the soldiers were directed by Chamberlain to hold the hill so it wouldn't get taken. They did, killing and capturing Confederates taken by surprise - indisputable evidence of the value of creativity, Ruggero suggested, while prodding his class to share how their companies encourage it.

Brainstorming was mentioned. So was diplomatically responding to bad ideas.

"You don't put down ideas," said Deborah Wilfong, a senior program manager at Honeywell Technology Solutions Inc.

At the site of Pickett's Charge, the climactic moment of the battle, when a 12,000-man Confederate assault was crushed by 7,000 Union soldiers and two hours of cannon fire, Ruggero preached the power of persuasion - and the potentially high cost when it fails.

The graycoats advanced into the wide open field toward a merciless line of cannons because Confederate Gen. James Longstreet failed to talk Gen. Robert E. Lee out of it.

Yet there's one element of that mismatch that business leaders should strive to replicate, Ruggero suggested: "You're looking to create some facsimile of the bond like the one that motivates the Confederate infantry to walk across the field."

Over lunch at the General Pickett Buffet, Damian Campayo, 47, of Downingtown, an IT project manager at XL Insurance America Inc. in Exton, reflected on the lesson of team players at the Peach Orchard.

"I just want to apply some of those lessons," he said. "I'm always rebuilding teams for specific projects."

From his own experience, Campayo has found what was borne out on the battlefield: that clear objectives are key to successful execution.

"It is amazing, when team members have clear objectives, they are able to make it work with different personalities and different skill sets," he said.

Participants parted ways the next day, after fulfilling Ruggero's final requirement: Each would write a personal leadership philosophy.

"It's a powerful tool," Ruggero said, "for really starting a conversation on how you want your team to operate."




The vast majority of people can improve by studying leadership as a discipline, according to Academy Leadership, an executive-training company in King of Prussia.

Among its other guidance:

McKinsey & Co. reports that 76 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs agree that developing leaders is a top priority.

Thirty percent of U.S. companies say missed opportunities resulted from lacking leaders with the right capabilities.

Most employees who voluntarily leave jobs do so because of a poor relationship with a supervisor.

A big question that keeps business chiefs up at night is, "Where will I get the leaders to grow this business?"

It is more efficient to grow your own than to hope the right leaders will show up.