I have walked over these fields so many times in these past thirty years (in print, at least; one day I will have to make pilgrimage to Gettysburg so I can finally, literally walk over those fields before they or I am no more) but with Guelzo as my walking companion, he keeps pointing to highlights on the landscape of those three days 150 years ago that I haven’t seen or considered before.
The Civil War is for me a lasting metaphor for so much of life.
Reading about it and gnawing on its raw and thoroughly human tales is like my own personal Apocrypha: not exactly inspired by God, but oh how the Divine speaks to me in its pages.
The Civil War shows us at our best, our most humane and noble, the better angels of our nature; it shows us as the killer angels that we all too often are as well. I’m not reading the pages of Gettysburg looking for lesson, moral, and metaphor.
They just pop out at me.
Like, just where was General Lee during the climactic action of the first day’s fight?
It’s as if he disappeared.
Witnesses place him here and there just before the victorious climax of that day’s battle, and right after. So where was he during the action?
I’d never heard that question raised or thought about it.
Where was he?
As Guelzo laid out the facts of that afternoon it became clear and a new appreciation for Lee as a leader dawned within me.
Early on in that first day, the Confederate attacks were rash, uncoordinated, and haphazard, incurring great loss on themselves. Then Lee “disappears.” Suddenly, as the sun settled towards the western horizon, the Confederate assaults were launched with coordinated effectiveness and power that resulted in a Union rout that cleared the field.
Where was Lee?
Guelzo’s conclusion is simple. Lee may have disappeared, but his fingerprints were all over the action of that hot July afternoon. Guelzo postulates his presence behind the scenes, directing, spurring, encouraging. But then it could all have just been coincidence…
So often when we think of effective leaders we think of a striking, visible presence announced with waving banners and blaring trumpets. We think of a leader seen by all, standing tall, his presence pronounced, her movements dramatic.
But perhaps we could stand to disappear for a bit.
Perhaps the sign of the effective leader – aka an impactful human being – is not the dramatic entrance and commanding presence, but the unheralded influence exerted behind the scenes. Perhaps the best leadership is much more oblique, much more subtle. So subtle, that those who tell the tale of that day will forget to even mention you as being in the thick of it.
How much more we might accomplish in the swirl of today’s mess of developing opportunities if we gave up the notion of being stars or leaders commanding authority and making things happen; of coming up with that signal epiphany that is tweeted everywhere, of making that awesome point, of shaping that amazing post that goes viral, of planning that unbelieveably successful event that has everyone talking about it (and you) for years…
…we became more like a grain of wheat quietly, unobtrusively planted in the ground…
…and before anyone has a chance to ask where we are or were, their breath is taken away as they gaze on something new sprouting from dry, dusty earth and wonder…
Where did that come from?