Illustration by Sean McCabe

The cannon and musket fire was deafening and smoke hung so thick across the fields that fleeing Union soldiers could see fewer than a dozen yards in any direction. The air screamed with a “literal shower of iron and lead,” according to one Union soldier, and no one knew where the front lines were.

It was a scene of utter chaos—one reimagined by members of the New World Scholars Program, a group of 20 top Northeastern students who traveled to the Chickamauga battlefield in Tennessee last October to learn how to apply the lessons of battle to modern business leadership.

“The concept is to go beyond what they get in the classroom,” says international business professor Allan Bird, creator of the program. “This is a leadership program that focuses on giving these students unique experiences and time to think and talk about those experiences.” (See “Food for Thought,” on page 47.)

Chickamauga was the second-bloodiest battle of the Civil War—35,000 casualties in two days, many of which were the direct result of horrible mismanagement. But through all the chaos and dysfunction, one man’s leadership stood out. John Wilder, a 33-year-old foundry owner from Indiana, applied the principles of entrepreneurship to the battlefield, creating a highly mobile, adaptive, and independent unit that would serve as the precursor to today’s Special Forces. Although Wilder was only a midlevel officer, his unit was one shining light during a battle dominated by arrogant, top-down leadership that thwarted victory and compounded the carnage.

“When we tour Chickamauga, we are watching two competing organizations of 60,000 people, each trying their best to find a way to lose,” says Steve McCloud, CEO of Trident Leadership, which led the Chickamauga program.

But McCloud focuses on much more than the disastrous leadership of opposing generals. One of the primary lessons students took away from the four-day trip was the importance of the “mission-oriented leadership” displayed by Wilder and his innovative Lightning Brigade.

“You need to explain the overall goals to your subordinates, and then delegate responsibility so they can use their ingenuity,” says Luomeng “Eric” Yu, DMSB’17. “In the past, whenever I led a group project in business school, I would tell people, ‘You have to do this, and next you have to do this.’ Now I realize it’s my responsibility to set an overall goal and leave it to them to decide how to get that done.”

Mission-oriented leadership, according to McCloud, is the antithesis of micromanagement. It’s about anticipating challenges, preparing subordinates to respond to those challenges, and equipping them with the tools needed to get the job done. But most of all, it’s empowering them to respond to the unexpected by using their own judgment. “

Leading isn’t commanding,” says Shivanjali Singh, CIS’17. “A mission orientation is a much more creative and innovative approach. You let people know what has to be done and let them use their own brains to do it.” So why travel 1,000 miles to a Civil War battlefield to learn this lesson?

The Value of Compression

When Bird launched New World Scholars in 2011, he was determined to create a program that was almost entirely experiential. No formal classes, no tests, no grades. That was made possible, in part, by a generous gift from Gary Dunton, DMSB’78, a retired insurance CEO who earmarked his donation to fund the first five trips to Chickamauga.

Bird chose a Civil War battlefield because it compresses the time between the decision and its effect, while also heightening the consequences of those decisions. By upping the ante, students get a clearer picture of how similar decision-making practices have a concrete impact in a business environment.

“We tend to think that business leaders don’t make decisions that cost people their lives,” says Bird. “We want our students to rethink that. We want them to realize that, as business leaders, they will be capable of destroying livelihoods, families, and even whole communities—but that they will also have the opportunity to help build these things.”

Bird also maintains that the chaos of warfare, while more intense, is not all that different from the chaos of the business world. He says that business, like warfare, is “a situation of ambiguity, chaos, and flux.” In such circumstances, “you don’t want people who are good at just following directions; you want people who can understand the objectives and make decisions.”

Another key lesson cited by several students is that mission-oriented leadership is not about charisma or charm or the power of personality. It’s about preparation, anticipation, and the empowerment of subordinates. According to McCloud, one way to test your leadership is to ask yourself this question: How good is your leadership when you’re not there?

For the generals at Chickamauga, the answer to this question was “terrible.” For Wilder, it was “superb.”

The folly of micromanagement

There was no shortage of bad leadership and organizational dysfunction during the bloodbath that took place on Sept. 19 and 20, 1863.

On the Union side, Gen. William Rosecrans had a reputation as a sound strategist who crippled his army and shackled his subordinates with extreme micromanagement. His decision to ignore Wilder’s scouting reports nearly cost him the battle before it began. Although Wilder repeatedly warned him of a massive Confederate troop buildup, Rosecrans clung to his belief that the enemy was in full retreat. As a result, he recklessly divided his army into three groups and sent them down separate valleys divided by high mountain ridges. The only thing that saved Rosecrans from defeat was the ineptitude of his Confederate counterpart, Gen. Braxton Bragg, who failed to capitalize on the Union general’s arrogance.

Rosecrans also had an explosive temper and chewed out top subordinates in front of their men. “This created a culture of fear among his officers,” says McCloud.

This dynamic led directly to a disaster that made a big impression on the Northeastern students. Early in the battle, Rosecrans berated Gen. Thomas Wood in front of his men for exercising independent judgment that ran counter to his orders. So, on the second day of battle, when Wood received a written order from Rosecrans to move his men to fill a gap in the line, Wood followed the order—even though he knew there was no gap in the line, and he would be creating one by moving his troops.

“He followed orders, even though he knew it was the wrong course of action,” says Singh. “He did it for revenge. It was all about a struggle between two generals.” The result was immediate. Confederate forces charged through the new and split the Union army in half. Only the swift intervention of Wilder and his Lightning Brigade prevented a total rout.

The Confederate leadership was no better. Like Rosecrans for the North, Gen. Bragg had a reputation as an excellent strategist but highly flawed leader.

During the two months leading up to the battle, he lost the confidence of his direct subordinates by repeatedly retreating. On at least three occasions, his hesitance to take action cost him an opportunity to isolate and defeat a third of the Union forces.

Bragg was aloof, was rarely on the front lines, and had a reputation for scapegoating subordinates whenever anything went wrong. Morale was terrible, and by the second day of battle, “his officers were so mad at him, they ignored his orders to attack,” says McCloud.

On the night of Sept. 19, Bragg sent orders to attack at dawn, but when dawn came, there was silence. He was furious. The attack didn’t begin until three hours later.

“This was the third time he had an opportunity to wipe out the enemy, but his subordinates wouldn’t act,” says McCloud. “Historians say, ‘He had great plans; too bad people didn’t carry them out.’ But that misses the point. The real issue is that he was a terrible leader of men. This was Bragg’s moment of truth—and he had prepared his team perfectly to get nothing done.”

The Lightning Brigade

In the months leading up to the battle, Confederate horsemen wreaked havoc with Union supply lines. Under pressure from Ulysses S. Grant to solve the problem, Rosecrans ordered Wilder to “do something about the Confederate cavalry.”

The vagueness of the orders was music to Wilder’s ears. He was a “get it done” kind of guy. Wilder quickly assembled a team of men he trusted and formed an entirely new kind of unit—mounted infantry. They were not cavalry, because they didn’t fight on horseback; they rode to their location, dismounted, and fought as regular infantry. What Wilder created was a highly mobile infantry unit that could cover enormous ground, respond to crises anywhere on the battlefield, and conduct reconnaissance along the way to keep his superiors better informed about enemy movements.

He spent two months preparing his unit for any situation that might arise and encouraging his men to exercise independent judgment when he was not available. He wanted everyone, not just himself, to know how to make sound decisions on the fly. This proved essential at several points in the battle when Wilder was off scouting another crisis and when he had to divide his company into two units to respond to competing emergencies.

Another critical component of leadership, according to Bird, is making sure your team has the tools needed to get the job done efficiently. In a final flourish—and one that proved crucial to his success—Wilder armed his men with the latest technology. The Spencer repeating rifle could fire seven times faster than any other rifle then used in the war. That meant that his small, mobile band could fire seven bullets for every one a Confederate soldier could shoot.

During the first day of the battle, the Lightning Brigade galloped from crisis to crisis, shoring up faltering lines and holding the enemy at bay. They repeatedly prevented the Confederate forces from crossing Chicka-mauga Creek, largely because the fusillade of the Spencer rifles convinced the Confederates that they were facing a much larger army.

After the war, Wilder settled in nearby Chattanooga and opened an iron factory and a machine works. Many of his men stayed to work for him. Even though this was the Deep South and Wilder had been a Union colonel, he became a civic leader and won election as mayor of the city.

“This is part of our theme of leadership over the long haul,” says Bird. “He was a master of leading under conditions of chaos—and that’s what the 21st century is all about. The question for the New World Scholars Program is: How can we create more Wilders?”

Bill Ibelle is executive editor.