Lessons in Leadership

This summer most of our directors attended the Gettysburg Leadership Experience.  The training highlighted choices made, opportunities missed and conversations avoided at Gettysburg which changed the course of history. Attendees heard about battle decision points, explored those same sites and reflected on how we can apply those lessons to our current challenges.  Our stockholders and directors serve as leaders within their operations and in our rural communities, so I thought I would share some of my takeaways from our visit to Gettysburg.

HPFC Directors with Ms. Susan Eisenhower at the Eisenhower Farm.

Never Stop Learning

We opened the Gettysburg experience by reviewing the Gettysburg Address.  Many in the classroom studied and even recited these words in grade school.  Until this summer, I did not realize that President Lincoln was not the key note speaker that day.  Secretary of State Edward Everett, well known for his speeches back then, delivered a two-hour eloquent address before President Lincoln spoke for two-minutes.  My first takeaway was:  You can say the right thing at the wrong time and gain a very different result.  President Lincoln was precise and obsessive about details.  He knew he was following Secretary of State Everett and knew the type of speech he was going to deliver as the keynote speaker.  President Lincoln was able to deliver the Gettysburg Address at the right time and stand out from the other speech given that day.

President Lincoln grew up on a farm and was a self-taught lawyer.  He did not view education as a finite period of time.  He was always learning.  Whenever he was asked to tutor someone, he would give them some books to read and tell them to make themselves better.  I believe his farm background helped him foster his eternal learning skill.  Farmers and ranchers are the greatest innovators in the world.  They are continually learning and solving problems to keep themselves moving forward.  Today there is an enormous library of information (videos, blogs, magazines, articles, etc.) to help your education continue.  The coffee shop is also an outstanding opportunity to learn too!

Success Can Be Hazardous

Prior to the Battle of Gettysburg, the Union and the Confederate armies had battled multiple times during the Civil War.  General Robert E. Lee and the Confederate army had a battle record of 8 wins, 0 losses and 1 tie going into Gettysburg.  As a result of the Union army’s struggles, multiple generals were fired and appointed to lead the Union army to help find a solution, which caused even more disarray.  In fact, just a couple days before the Battle at Gettysburg, General George G. Meade was put in charge of the Union army.  Imagine the thoughts going through General Meade’s mind, knowing he was up against General Lee, and if Gettysburg were to fall, that Washington D.C. might be next!

Because of their success, General Lee’s army believed they could do anything.  Under his command, the Confederate army outmaneuvered and drove the Union army back multiple times.  This caused them to be over anxious when they got to Gettysburg because they believed just being in the battle would mean they would win.  The Union army held them off long enough to maintain the “High Ground”, which in warfare back then was a substantial advantage.  The Confederate army continued to believe they could do the impossible because of their previous successes, and even influenced General Lee to forsake his own tactical skills and push forward against all odds.  Thousands of casualties for both sides could have been avoided if they could’ve assessed the situation for what it was.  The same is true in our operations.  Sometimes we are so focused on trying to repeat success that we forget we achieved that success after a lot of trial and error.  Eventually, risk or markets will adjust and we suffer a setback that could’ve been anticipated.  I like to think about this like I’m driving at night.  You can see okay driving with your low beams on, but you can see a lot better with your high beams on!

Morale Is An Input, Not An Output

On our final day in Gettysburg, we had the opportunity to learn from Susan Eisenhower, granddaughter of President Dwight D. Eisenhower.  She is the chair of Leadership and Policy and Gettysburg College and also the chair of the Eisenhower institute, a think tank based in Washington D.C.  She shared her experiences working with Russia during the Cold War and also her “granddad” leadership experiences.  One of the stories she shared was about the famous photo of General Eisenhower speaking to airborne troops.  In the photo it appears he is giving them pep talk when in reality he is talking about fly fishing.  General Eisenhower was charged with commanding the Allied forces on D-Day.  One thing he knew was if he were to deploy the airborne troops on D-Day they would likely suffer an 80% casualty rate.  The soldiers knew it to…  When he made the final decision the night before to deploy the airborne troops, he went to them, looked them all in the eye and visited with them about home to remind them what they were fighting for.  Morale is an input, not an output and we can all learn from this leadership moment in American history.  After our time with Ms. Eisenhower we were able to receive a personal tour of his farm outside Gettysburg.  It is leased out to a local rancher with the stipulation that only Angus cattle can be raised on the ranch!

If you ever have the opportunity to go to Gettysburg, I encourage you to spend some time to tour the battle fields with a guide and visit the Eisenhower farm.  It is well worth your time and is extremely impactful.  Merry Christmas from all of us at High Plains Farm Credit.  I hope you enjoy the holidays and always remember what is most important in life:  your faith, family and friends.

– Kevin

Kevin Swayne

Kevin Swayne
President