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Taking The High Ground Leadership Lessons
April 12, 2022

McFarland's non-anxious presence

‍To march into the valley of the shadow of death, they'd need a shepherd, with rod and staff, to go with them.

When Lt Col George McFarland led the nine-month volunteers of 151st PA into Gettysburg on July 1, 1863, they were "almost" ready to face the elephant.


They were well-motivated. They saw themselves as patriots—in defense of the land of their fathers.

They were well-trained. For eight months, McFarland drilled and instructed the regiment. They knew how to "move and fire" in battle. Their new Springfield rifles felt comfortable in their hands. Each could shoot the eye out of a squirrel at 200yards.

But to face for the first time a well-drilled and well-led enemy shooting back at them?

They'd need one more thing.

To march into the valley of the shadow of death, they'd need a shepherd, with rod and staff, to go with them.

As Edwin Friedman argues, systems under stress—volunteers going into battle—experience chronic anxiety and imaginative gridlock. In other words, the men of the 151st would be afraid AND in the chaos of a battle, they wouldn't know what to do.

The only solution to systems under stress is the presence of a leader who isn't. Men and women in battle always need the courageous and comforting presence of their commander.

And for volunteers especially, a worthy purpose and a thorough preparation are never enough to make them fight like veterans. The 151st PA needed July 1, 1863, the non-anxious presence of their leader.

So, when Maj Gen Doubleday ordered his last reserve—the 151st PA— into the breach on McPherson's Ridge at 3 pm that day, McFarland made himself visibly present.

On Horseback

First, McFarland led the regiment on horseback—which was unusual. Typically, only brigade commanders rode into an infantry battle. But sent in as reserves, the 151st PA had to fight independently from the rest of the brigade. McFarland, therefore, mounted his horse—so he could be seen by his men. They'd know where he was and would know who was directing their movement and fire.

For the first 30 minutes of the fight, McFarland was everywhere on horseback, with sword in hand "as brave as a lion" said one of his men. Finally, as the 151st PA fought a fighting withdrawal to Seminary Ridge, a Confederate volley shot McFarland's horse out from under him. The volley also hit his sword hilt but left him unhurt.

Near the Flag

Second, McFarland—now unhorsed—moved closer to the 151st PA battle flag: a highly visible symbol that stood for the "cause and community" for which the men were fighting. But the battle flag had a practical purpose as well. It was also how McFarland "moved" the regiment. McFarland had drilled into the heart and mind of every soldier: "Where the flag is, the regiment is supposed to be."

And where the flag is, the best commanders always are—even though it's the most dangerous place on the field. During the last 30 minutes of the fight, McFarland was always near the flag, directing and inspiring the men to fight with all they had left. He wrote to his wife after the battle that he was present at the most critical place. "While near our flag, I was wounded, shot twice, in the leg and ankle." Unable to escape capture, McFarland first ordered the 151stflag back to Union lines on Cemetery Hill.

The remnant of the 151stPA would fight again on July 3—without McFarland. But they'd fight, with their flag, like the veterans they were.

Lt Col. George Fisher McFarland—a teacher of teachers and a leader of leaders—turned volunteers into veterans:

By Reminding them of a Cause worth fighting for,

By Teaching them "how" to fight for that Cause,

and lastly,

By Visibly Demonstrating Contagious Courage.

Cause, Competency, Courage

McFarland's Non-Anxious Presence

Source: Taking The High Ground series, Weekly Reflections From a Lazy River, Author/Teacher Jay Lorenzen, Life & Leadership email sent 7-14-2021.

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