Lessons In Leadership: General Buford at the Battle of Gettysburg

July 23, 2014
In leadership, much can be learned from history. Marrying up historical decisions by leaders and leadership theories helps affirm on the application of those theories that are researched and developed today. As leaders, we should have an inquisitive interest in reading and understanding historical context.

On June 30, 1861 Union Brigadier General John Buford arrived in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania with the 1st Cavalry Division of 3,000 men.  After assessing the situation and consulting with his command staff he made the decision to deploy his men in a defensive position, facing of overwhelming odds.  It was this decision that set up the Union forces for success by allowing the Army of the Potomac to occupy the strategic and critical high ground around Cemetery Hill.  Let’s examine this decision, in the context of General Buford’s followership style, and extract a few key points that are critical to understanding how his leadership and his followership were impactful in this engagement.

In leadership, much can be learned from history.  Marrying up historical decisions by leaders and leadership theories helps affirm on the application of those theories that are researched and developed today.  As leaders, we should have an inquisitive interest in reading and understanding historical context.  We do this to learn from the past, from the successes and failures of leaders who have gone before us.

The function of the cavalry during the civil war included intelligence gathering, reporting on enemy troop movements, and occasionally disrupting enemy supply lines.  General Buford chose to deviate from that function because it was the right thing to do.  His decision to stay in Gettysburg and defend the town was a result of experience, good tactics, courage, and supporting the overall mission of the Union Army - to defeat the Confederate Army.  

Analytical Decision-Making

Upon arriving at Gettysburg, General Buford observed a superior Confederate force making efforts to enter the town.  He had to make a critical decision, whether or not to stay and fight.  This decision would not only impact his cavalry, but the entire Union Army.  Making the right decision requires analysis of the current situation.  To do this requires character, experience, intelligence, boldness, perception, and discernment.  General Buford possessed these attributes.  He maintained a high priority of intelligence gathering, sending out cavalry troops to do what they did best.  They scouted and reported on the movement of the Confederate Army, which was coming from the north and northwest leading down the Chambersburg Pike towards the town of Gettysburg.  He also knew a huge engagement was about to transpire, and in order to win, they needed the high ground (consisting of four hills: Culp’s Hill, Cemetery Hill, Little Round Top, and Round Top.  A long crescent shaped ridge called Cemetery Ridge connected these hills).  His cavalry division had to be deployed unmounted and in defensive positions to keep the high ground.  The cavalry was not accustomed this type of defense, unmounted fighting.  Buford’s experience allowed him to forecast the Confederate Army marching down the Chambersburg Pike towards the town of Gettysburg in an attempt to gain the high ground.   He was bold to use cavalry against well-equipped infantry.   His commitment to winning the battle and the war represented his character value of integrity and courage.   Without direct communication with his commanding officers Major General Alfred Pleasonton, the cavalry corps general, or General George Meade, Commander of the Army of the Potomac,  General Buford made a decision that he though best for the army.  His decision required critical thinking and a high level of organizational engagement, both traits of an exemplary follower. 

Exemplary Followership

Noted Followership scholar Robert Kelly observed most people, no matter how impressive their rank or title, spend more time as followers than as leaders.  He suggests more time is spent reporting to people rather than having people report to us (Kelley, 1992).  In other words, we might lead our squad, our unit, or our department, but we are a follower to our boss.  Kelly further proposes a follower not as an antithesis of leaders, but rather as collaborators in the success of organizational goals.  He argued this success is achieved by having exemplary performers in both roles.  We must have great leaders and great followers.  Great leaders are able to transition to the role of a great follower.

To be an exemplary follower, according to Kelly, one must be an independent, critical thinker and be actively engaged in the organization.  Critical thinkers are their own person and think for themselves.  They give constructive criticism and are innovative and creative.  When defining active engagement Kelly states the best followers take initiative, take ownership of the situation, are committed to the goals of the organization, and go above and beyond the job. 

General Buford’s actions clearly place him into the exemplary follower role.  He critically assessed the situation upon his arrival at Gettysburg and realized the strategic importance of the good ground.  His assessment led to the conclusion that if he relinquished the high ground the Confederate army would occupy it.  He understood that the new commander of the Army of the Potomac, General George Meade, would be cautious and his decision to attack the confederates would take days.  This delay would then allow the southern army to fortify their positions.  As an experienced soldier, Buford knew that attacking up high ground and against a fortified and dug-in army would cost thousands of lives.  This thought process led Buford to his decision to stand, defend, and fight bitterly for the area north of Gettysburg.  Once the decision was made, he took ownership of the situation and committed his smaller force to stand and face the larger opposition.  Unequivocally, General Buford was an exemplary follower.  His exemplary followership style also made him a respected and effective leader.

What we can learn from the Battle

Just like in law enforcement, there are decisive victories every day at the tactical and strategic level.  At the command level, some leaders may experience a gap of understanding because of time and distance from the front line.  The “boots on the ground” officers often make critical decisions.  As leaders, we have to look for and recognize those “exemplary followers” in our organization.  These men and women are out there everyday making good decisions for the organization.  We need to clearly understand when they have the best vantage point and not only respect their decisions but expect them to make those crucial decisions.

We can also learn to embrace the leader and follower attributes of historical figures such as General Buford.  His ability to function effectively in both a leadership and followership role serves as a model for us to stretch our leadership competencies to a higher level.

Learn the job, and learn it well.  With General Buford, he was a good field tactician because he learned from his past mistakes.  In law enforcement, whatever job you are assigned to, do it well by researching and learning how to do it.

  • Always have good intelligence on what’s coming over the horizon.  Leaders should always be reading and understanding what is happening in the current landscape of community relations, national news and even International news.
  • Know your organizational values.  Inculcate them in everything you do.  Ensure that the goal of the organization is supplanted within the culture of your area of responsibility.  General Buford embraced the Union goal to defeat the Confederate Army not only just in Gettysburg but also in the entirety of the war. 
  • Get all the information you can before you make a decision.  Tactical and strategic decisions should not be done in haste.  General Buford sent scouts to a wide area north of Gettysburg to see what the Confederates were doing.  He studied the topography and constructed a battle plan to defend the area.  Because of his efforts, he was able to hold the Confederate Army long enough for General John Reynolds I Corps to move up and support the defense.

General Buford has been overshadowed by other great leaders of the time, to include Colonel Chamberlain, with his notable defense and charge on Little Round Top, and General Pickett, for his valiant charge towards the Union center.  Numerous lessons of exemplary followers and leaders can be seen at the Battle of Gettysburg. 

Law enforcement leaders can take much from studying the great leaders at the Battle of Gettysburg and also other civil war battles.  Abraham Lincoln played a great role in forming the Union Army and what stands today as the United States of America.  Lincoln took a country that was divided, stood on a firm ground of moral values, and valued such leaders as General John Buford.  Seek historical leadership. There are plenty of examples in American history.  It’s a reminder for all of us of great leadership decisions in the past that can further prove that contemporary leadership theories work and have always worked.

Works Cited

Kelley, R. (1992). The Power of Followership. New York, NY: Doubleday.

About The Authors:

Lt. Edward Pallas, M.S.

Lieutenant Ed Pallas has been a police officer with the Montgomery County Department of Police, in Maryland, for 19 years. He is a former supervisor of the Leadership Development Institute and is currently assigned to the Legal and Labor Relations Division.  Ed is a member of his department’s Emergency Response Team, where he has served as a Hostage Negotiator for the last twelve years. 

Ed is the founder of Leader Armor, LLC, www.leaderarmor.com, a leadership training & consulting company.  Ed is a certified by Master Instructor in the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) Leadership in Police OrganizationsSM (LPO) program.  He is also a certified practitioner in the Myers Briggs Personality Type Indicator (MBTI) and the Emotional Quotient Inventory (EQ-i 2.0). 

Ed earned his B.A degree in Criminal Justice from the University of Maryland, College Park, in 1992.  In May of 2011 he earned his M.S. in Management, from Johns Hopkins University, specializing in applied behavioral science.  He is currently pursuing his doctoral studies in organizational leadership at Wilmington University in Delaware.  His thesis concerns exploring the relationship between emotional intelligence and transformational leadership in police officers. 

Sgt. Al Uy (Ret)

Al Uy is a retired police sergeant from the Montgomery County Police Department, Maryland.  Assignments within the police department include the Patrol Division, Community Policing, Mountain Bicycle Unit – Wheaton Central Business District, 4th District Gang Unit, Police Recruitment, District Investigations, Firearms Task Force, Auto Theft Unit, Background Investigations, the Public Safety Training Academy and a conflict negotiator with the Emergency Response Team (ERT).  In the last 5-years of his time with the Montgomery County Police Department he was assigned to the Training and Education Division, Training Development Section, also known as in-service training where he assisted in enhancing the training curriculum by integrating more hands-on training, technology simulations training, and distance learning.  He has previously presented a topic on training and leadership at the International Association of Chiefs of Police Conference and written two articles on the topic of training for the IACP.   He has continued his passion for simulations training and joined a defense contractor in the Orlando, Florida area to further develop and market a unique speech recognition use of force simulator specific for law enforcement.   He now provides affordable simulations training technologies to local police departments across the nation in an effort to ensure simulations training are accessible to local police departments.  This fall 2014 in Orlando, Florida, he will be presenting at the IACP Conference in the Innovations Theaters on the idea of using recruitment videos and social media to increase the candidate pool for police agencies.

Sponsored Recommendations

Voice your opinion!

To join the conversation, and become an exclusive member of Officer, create an account today!