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Lessons on Leadership Learned From Gettysburg

Jun 25, 2012

I just returned from spending two-and-a-half days in Gettysburg, Pa. attending a Campus MBA leadership event that was conducted literally on the grounds of the Battle at Gettysburg, an event put on by the Lincoln Leadership Institute of Gettysburg, in conjunction with the Mortgage Bankers Association (MBA). Over the course of my 37-year career in the mortgage industry, I have attended many outstanding training/educational sessions and heard many great speakers. However, this event was, without question, one of the most profound life-changing experiences I've had professionally and want to tell you all about it. Maybe you, like me, have visited Gettysburg and have seen the monuments and toured the battlefields. Perhaps you have read a book or two about the Battle of Gettysburg or even see the movie, “Gettysburg.” While I had an understanding of the significance of what took place there those first days in July of 1863, it wasn’t until I attended this event that I recognized how the lessons learned at the Gettysburg Battle could help our industry today. While the lessons are many, here are three that I believe you will find interesting. Lesson #1: The importance of purpose The Union army was more than 80,000 soldiers strong, much larger in number than the Confederate army. But the Union soldiers had lost faith in their leaders. They had developed an attitude problem that had become a serious morale issue throughout the ranks. Yet, while they were down on their leaders, they were not down on themselves. Does that sound familiar? The Union soldiers motivated themselves by reminding each other that they were fighting for a cause bigger than themselves … they were fighting to set other men free! They were fighting to keep the United States “united” and remaining, to quote from the Pledge of Allegiance, “One nation indivisible with liberty and justice for all.” Having an overriding moral cause will motivate even the most demoralized person, giving them reason to fight with greater purpose to defeat an army with a higher morale, but a lesser cause. When you read the diaries of those fighting on both sides of the Civil War, both thought that they had the higher more “righteous cause” for which they all were willing to die. Just like the Union forces, I believe that many in the mortgage industry today have become frustrated and lost faith in leadership of our industry and our nation. Nonetheless, many in the industry have NOT lost confidence or faith in themselves. Neither have they lost sight of the significance of “the greater cause” or purpose, for which we do what we do … finance the American Dream of Homeownership! This purpose supports and undergirds our entire country’s economy, which arguably impacts the ongoing viability of our nation. Lesson #2: Know your strategic position Gettysburg was very strategically positioned, geographically speaking. It wasn’t just the fact that approximately 70,000 Confederate soldiers were strung out to the west and north, nor was it that 80,000 Union soldiers amassed to the south marching north directly towards this otherwise peaceful and picturesque community. By looking at a map, you will quickly see that the established roads, all nine or 10 of them, lead directly into Gettysburg. That worked to their advantage in good economic times bringing commerce to their community. Conversely, it worked to their disadvantage in these times of great conflict such as this. This is a perfect parallel to the mortgage industry today. It has been said many times and now is universally accepted that the key to any economic recovery is a sustainable housing recovery … and the key to a sustainable housing recovery will be a healthy mortgage industry recovery. In that sense, metaphorically speaking, all “economic roads” lead to the mortgage industry just as all the transportation roads lead to Gettysburg. If the mortgage industry was “Ground Zero” for the current economic collapse in our country, then it is understandable and predictable that the mortgage industry is going to be the epicenter for any battles as we struggle to achieve an economic recovery. Our industry finds itself at the crossroads of our economy and, therefore, in the crosshairs of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), an agency whose mission it is to stop all “trickery” and “abuse” (President Obama’s words, not mine) that has gone on in the mortgage industry. The CFPB is churning out more and more regulations intent on monitoring and managing us, when in reality, it may be doing more to thwart any kind of mortgage recovery, much less an overall economic recovery. It's like the federal government wants to “kill the goose that's trying the lay the golden egg.” As there was an epic battle forming around Gettysburg, so there’s an epic battle forming around the mortgage industry. This battle will no doubt reshape our industry, as the potential future economic direction of our country. It’s an interesting side note that as soon as it became evident to the 2,500 citizens living there that Gettysburg was about to be at the center of an epic battle of opposing massive military forces, the elected officials, the “leaders” of Gettysburg, packed up everything they owned and fled town. They abandoned the very ones they were elected to “serve and protect.” These “leaders” left behind the older and weaker folks, who were least able to defend themselves. Talk about bad leadership! What I find so ironic is that so many mortgage “professionals” that made a bundle of money when things were going great are nowhere to be found these days. Those of us who believe in this industry and are fighting the good fight for a greater cause are still here. While some of us may be older, we are far from weak. We have a lot of fight yet in us and have a sense of a “higher cause” that is beyond our own selfish desires. I could go on and on with this, but I think you get my point. Lesson #3: The importance of knowing the forces coming against us The third and final lesson came from studying that part of the final battle that became known as “Pickett's Charge.” You see, Major General George Pickett led a division of Confederate soldiers and had been given orders by General Robert E. Lee to make a full-on frontal assault on Union forces that held the high ground just south of Gettysburg. Major General Pickett would be joined on both sides by other Confederate divisions making for a massive assault force that stretched a mile-wide across an open field. General Lee was convinced that this would be the final battle of the war. Why you ask? Because in previous battles where General Lee’s battle strategy was a massive frontal assault, the Union forces had turned and run. But on this day, July 3, 1863, General Lee would discover a new resolve within the Union soldiers, under the new leadership under General Meade who understood the importance of focusing his Union soldiers on the “greater cause” for which they were fighting that day. The battle, which again became known as “Pickett’s Charge,” involved tens of thousands of Confederate soldiers marching across an open field, shoulder-to-shoulder in full view of a Union army who were “locked and loaded” with the resolve to not lose this battle at all costs. The Union army had a well-established supply line providing them all the ammunition they needed to keep the Union forces well-equipped. As the Confederate troops began their assault, the Union forces opened up with a barrage of long-range (for that time) artillery fire. The Confederates suffered some losses, somewhere in the 10 percent range, but as Confederate troops drew closer, the Union forces engaged the Confederate forces with an overpowering hail of bullets and shorter-range cannon fire. In the next 45 minutes, approximately 10,000 soldiers tragically lost their lives, the vast majority of which were Confederate soldiers. The Confederate Army was decimated by the Union forces, and ultimately, forced into a humiliating retreat. Pickett’s Division was almost completely wiped out. As I stood there on the very spot where all this happened and trying to take it all in, I saw more parallels to our industry. This is one of the powerful aspects of this Lincoln Leadership Institute at Gettysburg event that I was attending. I actually had the opportunity to walk across that same mile-long stretch of open ground … virtually the same path that Major General Pickett’s soldiers waked as they charged the Union forces … a very powerful moment! As I walked across that open field, it wasn't difficult to imagine how Pickett’s men must have felt as they watched their comrades get obliterated by the Union forces who had secured the strategic higher ground. As I walked up to what was the battle line, I was handed a .52 caliber lead bullet that was found there on the battlefield as a souvenir. It was overwhelming to realize the magnitude of destruction pointed at Pickett’s forces. As I held that souvenir bullet, I recognized another parallel for the mortgage industry. It is how our industry, metaphorically speaking, is marching unprotected across an open field towards “Union” regulators that are “On the Hill.” I quickly equated the CFPB to the Union forces up on the hill. This seemed especially fitting as I had read that same day the CFPB’s resolve to release a barrage of new regulations at the rate of nearly one new regulation a day through September of this year. It was then that I realized what a decimating impact this could have on the ranks of our industry. Before I attended this leadership development event, I understood the Battle at Gettysburg from a historical perspective. Today, as a result of this Conference, I see how we can learn so much from uninformed decisions that can lead to some tragic defeats, as well as some really good leadership that led to some extraordinary victories. It was Sir Winston Churchill who said, “Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” We have seen this to be true over and over again. My goal in writing this article was to make you aware of this event, and hopefully, motivate you to make the time and investment to attend the next Lincoln on Leadership at Gettysburg event which is scheduled for Wednesday-Friday, Sept. 12-14, 2012. To learn more, go to or go to I look forward to hearing from you and any feedback you may have on this article ([email protected]). David Lykken is president of mortgage strategies and managing partner with Mortgage Banking Solutions. He has more than 35 years of industry experience and has garnered a national reputation, and has become a frequent guest on FOX Business News with Neil Cavuto, Stuart Varney, Liz Claman and Dave Asman with additional guest appearances on the CBS Evening News, Bloomberg TV and radio. He may be reached by phone at (512) 977-9900, ext. 10, or e-mail [email protected] or [email protected].
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