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Civil War Times: October 1999 Editorial

Originally published on HistoryNet.com. Published Online: September 23, 1999 
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From the Editor
From the Editor
Civil War Times
Civil War Times

THE LAST FULL MEASURE OF AMBITION

I remember standing on Seminary Ridge, looking out over that ocean of a field that stretches to Cemetery Ridge. It was a windy winter day in the late 1980s, and there was scarcely anyone else at Gettysburg National Military Park. I studied the figures of the nearby North Carolina monument, each one unique, each pressing forward with a look of determination or resignation.

These stone men were reminders of real men who, in obedience to orders and perhaps with genuine hope of success, had pushed their way across that field on July 3, 1863. The odds they faced were abysmal: there was no chance of breaking that Union line. In fact, there was very little chance of survival. Down deep, they must have known this.

The awareness, however faint, of what the North Carolinians went through that day so long ago touched and inspired me. I reflected on the courage and true-heartedness it must have taken to keep going when the cost of doing so might be death. I reflected on what I believe really matters, and on the kind of person I hope to become in life.

Now, don't tell my boss, but what I did not reflect on was how a careful study of the North Carolinians' charge could help me make money for my company or accomplish my business goals. I did not hope to learn "what it takes to win in war and in today's chaotic business environment." But that is exactly what a group of senior executives from a company that shall remain nameless did this summer.

According to a very nice public relations spokeswoman who approached me about doing an article on the Gettysburg leadership training session (and whom I don't mean to offend), the program used a battlefield tour to show how "compelling vision, a sense of urgency and purpose, steadfast commitment, and courageous action in the face of superior forces" could equip executives to win in business.

The idea of using a battlefield to learn about tactics, strategy, and troop management is not new. The war had scarcely ended before tours of Gettysburg and other battlefields were used to train army officers, and these "staff rides" continue today. Such lessons pay off; a mechanized version of Stonewall Jackson's Chancellorsville flank march helped defeat the Iraqis in the Gulf War. And I'm sure every one of us, soldier or civilian, has taken lessons in personal courage from our battlefield visits.

So, what bothers me about the executive training session? I guess it's this: At Gettysburg, people were fighting over human rights and freedoms, and what sort of government(s) the American people were going to have. What's more, their lives and the lives of others around them were at stake. To turn this into an example for effectiveness in business seems shallow and crass.

And I don't know about you, but I'm tired of people using military models for human behavior outside military situations. Sure, imitate military self-discipline. But why treat business like war? Why should executives view people down the flow chart as lieutenants or grunts? In the end, war is about making other people do what you want. It's about using force to get something. Go, read Clausewitz and company; they'll tell you the same. Now, is that the sort of thing we should model business and human relations on?

One other thing bugs me about using Gettysburg to train executives: if you're trying to build character just so you can be more successful in business, you've already missed the lesson about what character is. Am I wrong?


Jim Kushlan, Editor, Civil War Times

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©1999, Cowles History Group, Inc. d/b/a PRIMEDIA History Group, a division of PRIMEDIA Special Interest Publications.
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