The Battle of Gettysburg was the largest battle ever fought in the western hemisphere and a critical turning point in the American Civil War. The second day of the battle, July 2, 1863, was one of the bloodiest in American history, with approximately 20,000 combined casualties (killed, wounded, missing, or captured). As evening slowly gave way to night at the end of that terrible day, General George Gordon Meade, commander of the Union Army of the Potomac, called his entire leadership team together at his headquarters for a council of war. Meade knew in his own mind the outcome he desired on the battle's third day, but he also wanted to hear from his commanders and to achieve consensus regarding the Union strategy for the endgame. Meade instinctively understood the critical need, at this dramatic moment in time, to collaborate effectively in decision making.
Meade and his counterpart, the extremely capable Robert E. Lee, commanding general of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, were locked in mortal combat. Several weeks earlier Lee had begun an invasion of Northern territory and the two mighty armies had met accidentally, but with unspeakable fury, at the little crossroads borough of Gettysburg in south central Pennsylvania. By the end of the second day, after much desperate fighting, the armies lay in stalemate, watching each other warily across contested ground like two wounded but still very dangerous animals.
General Meade had established his headquarters in a tiny white farmhouse owned by the widow Lydia Leister. Earlier on July 2 he had wired his superiors in Washington D.C. to let them know it was his intention to "remain in my present position tomorrow…" Nevertheless, that night he gathered his top generals (eleven in all) to listen to their assessment of the situation. They assembled in a room no larger than twelve by twelve feet, illuminated by a single candle, and which was soon filled with a thick cloud of cigar smoke.
The discussion began informally, and turned to the issues of the dire condition of the army and the lack of supplies. Meade was quiet, offering only an occasional comment, and intent on hearing what his team had to say before offering his own judgment. Finally, with Meade's concurrence, his chief of staff proposed that the group vote on three critical questions: 1. Should the army remain in its present position? 2. If the army remains, should it attack or await the enemy's attack? 3. If the decision is to await attack, how long should it wait? After much give and take, the generals voted unanimously to stay in their present position, await attack, and to wait for not much longer than a day.
One of the participants, General John Gibbon, wrote afterward, "I recollect there was great good feeling amongst the Corp Commanders at their agreeing so unanimously, and Gen. Meade announced, in a decided manner, 'Such then is the decision.'" The generals left the meeting clear in the understanding of their mission and united in their common purpose to defeat the enemy the next day, which they succeeded in doing. This stroke of genius-- attaining clarity and consensus during a critical phase of the fight-- on the part of George Meade may have (more than anything else he did over the three days) won the Battle of Gettysburg for the North.
What can modern-day business leaders learn from the historical example of Meade's collaborative decision making? First, Meade recognized the criticality of pulling his team together for a face-to-face consultation. Sometimes, there is simply no substitute for a meeting in person, and skilled leaders understand precisely when there is a need to bring everyone into the same room. Ironically, Meade's adversary General Lee did not gather his commanding generals together for a war council at any point during the battle, and a serious lack of coordination resulted.
Next, Meade initiated a process that was perceived by all of the participants as fair. While it is true that Meade had already indicated to higher command his preference for remaining in place, he did not disclose his point of view to those reporting to him. Instead, he remained quiet and listened respectfully with genuine interest to what the others had to say. Each person had a chance to weigh in to the discussion and to vote on a particular outcome. When the members of a team feel that they have been given ample opportunity to express their points of view and to influence their leader, even if they disagree with the final decision, they are much more inclined to buy into the ultimate direction.
Finally, Meade's council of war provided absolute clarity to every individual involved as to what was expected of him for the next day. The fact that the decisions made were unanimous helped in achieving this effect but, even if there had been disagreement, the rationale for the chosen decision was clear and unambiguous.
On the morning of July 3, after the famous meeting but before the decisive combat that would bring victory to his forces, Meade penned a hurried letter to his wife: "Dearest love, All well and going on well with the Army. We had a great fight yesterday, the enemy attacking and we completely repulsing them-- both armies shattered…. Army in fine spirits and every one determined to do or die." This determination to defeat the Confederate enemy at all costs was in large part achieved as a result of George Meade's intuitive comprehension of the importance of effective collaboration when making a critical decision.