This summer marked the 150th anniversary of the battle of Gettysburg. That this battle’s significance still resonates with us is evidenced by the scores of books and articles published in commemoration of the event. Business, political and military leaders from around the world visit the battlefield to learn valuable leadership lessons that they can apply to their particular domains. Some of these lessons guide a leader in what to do, others in what not to do. Although generally honored as one of history’s great military captains, the Confederate commander General Robert E. Lee’s performance during this particular battle serves as a lodestar of what a leader should not do.
Lee did not want to fight an all-out engagement at the little hamlet of Gettysburg. Events, though, conspired against his wishes and by July 1, 1863 his Army of Northern Virginia was committed to this full scale battle. While historians argue as to why Lee was not at his best (for example, some argue he was suffering from various medical ailments), the consensus is that his judgment and resulting decisions were second rate. From the outset of the battle he seems to have been overtaken by events (to employ a contemporary military term) and never fully gained control of the battle dynamic. While always a gambler, Lee generally possessed a sober view of reality and did not fall victim to wishful thinking. He mostly realized the chances he was taking. But at Gettysburg he allowed his preferred view of reality to dictate his moves. Despite receiving cautious and prudent advice from some of his subordinates, especially General Longstreet, Lee continually ordered frontal attacks against the Union lines. This ended in disaster at Pickett’s Charge on the afternoon of July 3, when he lost thousands of soldiers during the assault against the Union center.
Lee has often been depicted as the paragon of the responsible leader following this debacle. As the Confederate stragglers and survivors returned to their step-off point Lee turned to them, realizing that he had erred, and exclaimed, “Our failure is charged to me” (Gettysburg: The Last Invasion, by Allen C. Guelzo, 2013, p.455). Ostensibly, at least his actions here would serve as a positive leadership lesson. Lee demonstrated that a leader must accept full responsibility for his or her actions. However, it seems that even in this regard Lee’s behavior falls short. Lee never fully conceded that his strategy was faulty and with time he began to blame others for the defeat. Lee forever bore a grudge against Jeb Stuart, his cavalry commander who was absent the first two days of the battle. He likewise lamented that, since his best general, Stonewall Jackson, had died prior to Gettysburg, he had to rely on less talented generals who could not forcefully execute his ideas as Jackson had. But most shamefully he eventually blamed his own troops. Professor Guelzo quotes Lee’s suggestion that “more may have been required of them than they were able to perform” (p.457). Guelzo further documents how, after Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, he described his soldiers’ “resistance as Feeble” (ibid).
Accepting responsibility is the essence of leadership. Rav Chaim Shmuelevitz posits in his Sichos Mussar that it was Yehuda’s readiness to accept responsibility and admit error that earned him and his descendants the leadership of Bnei Yisrael. As we prepare for the onset of the month of Elul this Shabbat, which begins the repentance process, the importance of admitting mistakes and accepting responsibility take on an additional urgency. Our rabbis teach that the first step of repentance is acknowledging our sins and errors. If we feel that our behavior is on the right track then by definition we will fail to identify our shortcomings. Sadly, then our repentance will never leave the start gate.
Recognizing sin, as this first step is labeled, actually consists of two parts, according to Rav Yosef Albo (Sefer Haikarim 4:26). After quoting a series of Biblical verses that underscore the importance of confessing one’s sins, the Sefer Haikarim discusses several impediments to repentance. The first two are lack of awareness of the sin and self-justification. He compares a sinner to a sick person who, so long as he is ignorant of his illness, will not seek out medical treatment. So, too, a sinner who is unaware of his sinful behavior will not repent. However, mere awareness of sinful behavior is insufficient. A person must also accept responsibility. He must recognize that he is the author of his erroneous ways, and even if circumstances contributed to his errant ways, he is still the one ultimately responsible for his actions and must act accordingly. So long as a person refuses to accept personal responsibility and continues to justify his behavior by blaming others, he will be unable to repent.
The Sefer Haikarim illustrates this point with Shaul’s response to Shmuel’s indictment of his failure to kill the king of Amalek (Shmuel I:15). Shaul initially refused to concede that he failed to fulfill Hashem’s command. Shmuel quickly pointed out that Shaul’s failure to accept responsibility was an even worse crime. Finally realizing that he was wrong, Shaul confessed his guilt and admitted his mistake—almost. In his defense Shaul attempted to provide context for his mistake by claiming that he feared his people. Rav Yosef Albo underscores that, sadly, even once he recognized that a mistake was made, Shaul was unable to accept personal responsibility. At most he admitted to being an agent of error, but not the cause of the error. Upon seeing and hearing Shaul’s perception of the events, Shmuel realized that Shaul did not possess the character to be king. While it is certainly important for a king to be aware of his people’s feelings and concerns, he must not be led by them. In contemporary parlance he must form public opinion—not respond to it. In contrast to Shaul, David HaMelech, always admitted his mistakes and even more so, in the tradition of his forefather Yehuda, always accepted responsibility.
All of us must take this message to heart. As Elul begins we must perform an honest self-evaluation, no matter how uncomfortable this might be, be brutally honest in identifying our mistakes (as well as accurately identifying our strong points) and then accept responsibility. If we succeed in this endeavor we will be on the right path toward sincere repentance. Beyond the realm of repentance, this approach is essential for leaders. Leaders must be sensitive to changing conditions, conscious of their own errors and accept blame when appropriate and responsibility all the time. General Lee failed in this regard at Gettysburg. He never fully acknowledged that his strategy was wrong (just that it didn’t succeed at the specific time) and he seems to never have really believed that it was his fault. Indeed, leaders have what to learn from Lee’s behavior at Gettysburg.
About the Author: Rabbi Dr. David Hertzberg is the principal of the Yeshivah of Flatbush Middle Division and is an adjunct assistant professor of History at Touro College.
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