Finding the higher ground


Standing on a ridge looking over the terrain mixed with rolling hills, open fields and valleys a decision was made. At all costs and for as long as possible that ground was to be held.

Looking back, over 150 years removed, that decision doesn't seem all that important. After all, the person that made the decision was a trained military leader and had years of experience fighting Indians on the western frontier. It turns out that the decision was crucial to the success of the Union army during the battle of Gettysburg and some will say crucial to the success of winning the Civil War and preserving the United States of America.

General John Buford was responsible for that decision, but more importantly, he was responsible for knowing the terrain and understanding that the “higher ground” was crucial to stopping the main body of General Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia just long enough for the Union soldiers to secure their positions. Thus giving a battered Union army a slight advantage that would prove to be the difference in winning the battle.

Last week during a business trip to Gettysburg, I was able to stand on the ridge and survey the ground that Buford looked at on the evening of June 30 1863. It was a powerful moment to look over the terrain in front of us while thinking of what happened there a century and a half earlier.

Much has been written about the battle of Gettysburg. Bufordwasn’t a flashy person seeking glory and attention. Instead, he believed in himself and through leadership and the respect of his peers was able to make crucial decisions.

At the time and for decades to come not much was written about Buford though. Flashy names like Grant, Lee, Stewart, Sherman and Custer grabbed the headlines and the attention of historians. But it was the resolve and understanding of Buford that nudged history towards a victory for the Union.

To further demonstrate the power of that decision, it needs to be said that in modern sports terms the Union was having a disastrous season. Any team going through and 0-8-1 season would be questioning if they could ever win. Today coaches would be fired, fans would fill the airways with opinions on how to turn the tide of season or just give up for the year all together.

And that’s exactly what was happening during that time. The people of the north were tired of the war and President Lincoln had already fired two generals that weren’t getting the job done. Lee was trying to capitalize on the disillusionment of the Union by leading a campaign in the north to win a major battle and hope for an end of the war. All of these variables collided on the grounds just outside of the small town of Gettysburg. Making the decision by Buford that much more important.

Buford of course didn’t single handedly win the battle or the war. But his actions and heroic efforts delayed the Confederates long enough for the main body of Union troops to grab the true high ground on Little Round Top and Cemetery Ridge.

It has been said that the United States of America was born in Philadelphia in 1776 and preserved on the battlefields of Gettysburg in 1863.

What does all of this have to do with us today? It is a case study that should help us understand how important leadership is. In my mind, many layers came together to make the Buford's decision a success. Buford had earned the respect of his superiors that in turn allowed him to make important decisions. He had also earned the respect of his soldiers so they would carry out his orders without question. He was also able to see the larger picture and understand the importance of taking action.

Learning about Buford and seeing the battlefield made me survey the landscape of my career. I’ve had victories and setbacks as has everyone. I know that moving forward, I’ll keep Buford’s decisions in mind as I look for the higher ground.