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Tripp Babbitt

Quality Insider

Lessons From the Civil War

Personal reconnaissance has a place in today’s organizations

Published: Tuesday, September 25, 2012 - 12:00

In 1862, the bloodiest battle in American history was fought on Sept. 17, and 23,000 soldiers from the North and South were killed in about 12 hours of fighting. This military “victory” for the North paved the way for Abraham Lincoln to issue the emancipation proclamation a few months later. Not 10 months later another battle occurred in Gettysburg from July 1–3, 1863, with 51,000 casualties over the three days.

This year and 2013 mark the 150th anniversary of these significant battles. My son and I have visited both battlefields. At Antietam and Gettysburg, it takes a while to just get over the amount of carnage that occurred on these hallowed grounds. I try to glean some wisdom from such historical trips.

If you get a private guided tour of Gettysburg, you get an abundance of information at different sites. You learn about the “black hats” that may have saved the North by fighting so bravely to hold off the advancing armies of Gen. Robert E. Lee. However, the story of Gen. John Fulton Reynolds captivates me each time I hear it. Reynolds was killed on the first day of battle (July 1) and there is some controversy about the time of day, who fired (friendly fire, Confederate sharpshooter, or volleys) and where the shot hit (back of neck or lower head). Regardless, Reynolds and other generals like him in the Civil War represent distinguished attributes of leaders.

Sure, I like the fact that when Abraham Lincoln interviewed Reynolds to be the commander of the Army of the Potomac, Reynolds response was that if he were to be commander, he wanted to be free of the political influence and allowed a free hand to run the Army without interference. He didn’t get the job; George Meade did.

The most interesting aspect to me of Reynolds’ military life had to be how he was killed… in the battle, not away from it. Reynolds was conducting “personal reconnaissance” for the troops. There were no airplanes to fly over and tell where the troops were, so even generals were blind to the size and movements of the enemy. The only way to assess a situation was to go and look for yourself. This would put commanders in harm’s way, but gave valuable information to strategically move one’s own troops.

In today’s world there is no threat of mortality (for the most part) for leaders in organizations to perform personal reconnaissance, however, most do not—worker’s work and manager’s manage. In today’s organizations, the lack of understanding the work while making decisions is egregious. Leaders blindly plan without any understanding of the work. Send the minions to do reconnaissance!

Such thinking leads to disastrous actions. Companies embrace technology in a misguided belief that modernization will make things better. Evidence otherwise becomes an inconvenient truth. Work design and management thinking bury organizations in misfired attempts to improve.

Reynolds is buried at the corner of Lemon and Lime Streets in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. He died in the first hours of the battle of Gettysburg doing what he thought good generals should do, engage as a leader with knowledge.

Seems a good lesson for all leaders.


About The Author

Tripp Babbitt’s picture

Tripp Babbitt

Tripp Babbitt the managing partner for The 95 Method - Executive Education and Advisors. The 95 Method is about giving organizations a method to use new theories to grow business.  Babbitt can be reached at tripp@the95method.com. Reach him on LinkedIn at www.linkedin.com/in/trippbabbitt

Tripp also has a podcast and YouTube channel called, The Effective Executive.


The Civil War

A matter of historical reference you stated that there were 23,000 killed at Antietam. That was the number of casualties which includes killed, missing,captured and wounded. The number killed was closer to 3,700. 

Genchi Genbutsu


Great article!! 

Managing from the Ivory tower, it just doesn't work!  Think of the amount of time and money wasted on miss-steps and false starts. 

It is always amazing the insight one gets when time is spent at the gemba, actively observing and asking questions.  Involving the people doing the work in coming up with counter measures.  The level of "buy in" and sustainability is so much greater than it would be with counter measure mandated by management that is rarely, if ever, seen at the gemba.

Ya think Gen. Reynolds had buy in from his troops?  My guess, Beyond Measure!

Tripp, Thanks again for the article!