Define the high ground

  • Published
  • By Chief Master Sgt. Timothy Horn
  • 22nd Air Refueling Wing command chief
I recently had the opportunity to attend the Gettysburg Leadership Experience. This is an executive-level professional development course based on case studies from the Battle of Gettysburg. Although it would be impossible to share the complete experience, there is a nugget of insight I'd like to pass on. It comes from studying Gen. John Buford and his focus on acquiring a high ground on the very first day of this great three-day battle.

General Buford and his cavalry were the "eyes and ears" of the Union Army. As they pushed their way through the quiet town of Gettysburg, they stumbled upon an area of great open fields with a series of progressively higher ridges. They knew that the Confederate Army was likely to engage them if they stayed; they also knew that their own reinforcements were many hours behind them. Despite this circumstance, the general knew he had to protect the high ground.

As a cavalryman, General Buford did not own this responsibility, but he knew the advantage would be lost if he failed to protect it. Anticipating that his meager force would be pushed back by the Confederates, he staged his forces on the smaller ridges, allowing his men to fall back to higher ground. This is exactly what happened. The South attacked and the Union cavalry held, falling back as necessary. At the end of the day, he held the high ground - ground that became perhaps the key factor in winning the battle on that final day .

The course instructors posed a simple question to us in the classroom. What is your high ground? In other words, what tools, skills, circumstances or preparations do you need to operate from the advantage? Without the high ground you conversely fight from a disadvantage ... an uphill battle. What do you need as a leader or follower in order to secure your high ground?

Allow me to offer my take on these questions. As the command chief, I need to establish key relationships. Obviously, I must have a solid relationship with the wing commander. I must also build trust and effective communication between myself and other key leaders - especially commanders, chief master sergeants and first sergeants. I need to develop key relationships with the Airmen and Family Readiness Center, the legal office, and so on. If I can establish this connection and foundation of trust, I have achieved the high ground. I will go into "battle" from a position of advantage. When challenges arise, the fight is easier, and my chance of success improves.

The answer to that question is different depending on your needs and the role you play in your organization. Your answer may include physical items, such as a set of tools. You may require specialized training to gain the advantage you need. In any case, it is a valuable exercise to ask yourself the question and explore the possible answers. Even in a classroom full of command chiefs, the answer varied based on situations and each person's own strengths and weaknesses.

I challenge you to consider what you need in order to secure your high ground. Knowing the answers can help you plan a path to success, drive priorities and even identify some shortfalls you need help acquiring. Remember, they aren't everything you need in order to do your job - they are things that give you the edge you need to be successful. Now that you understand this concept, you can answer the question: What is your high ground?