Why the Boardroom Needs to Visit the Battlefield

Using the lessons of historic battlefields to teach 21st century leadership.

By Steven L. Ossad, Founder, Applied Battlefield Concepts LLC

Leadership lessons abound. They’re available at the click of a mouse, the touch of a screen, or the link to a video guide/curriculum. Yet the benefits of our high-tech management training techniques often cause us to overlook the lessons of history. Specifically, how can American Revolution and Civil War battlefields help you augment the leadership, collaborative, risk-taking, and communication acumen across your organization?
For more than 100 years, U.S. military personnel have participated in an on-battlefield-location training and development program known as the Staff Ride. Currently, this concept, which is finding its way into 21st century management and training programs, offers HR executives new opportunities to further hone senior managers’ skills. In an age of digital communications, mobile apps, and online learning how can historic battlefields address pressing executive and corporate management training issues? The answer is because history remains one of our best teachers.

Experiential learning is not new, and it’s part of a big market. According to U.S. Census Bureau statistics, American corporations spend an estimated $12.7 billion annually on all types of management development and leadership training programs, and that number is growing at 12 percent per year. Within this environment, the military staff ride has been transformed into the Corporate Staff Ride. Executives who participate in Corporate Staff Rides visit and study a select battlefield for the purpose of drawing parallels between that military campaign and their own corporate issues/challenges, including leader training, supply chain management, timely decision-making, effective communications, and resource deployment.

The Right Place at the Right Time

As with any management training initiative, it’s important that the strategy behind the selection of participants, battlefield/battle, and corporate agenda is aligned. Significant internal leadership changes, external competitive threats, or industry upheavals could suggest a Corporate Staff Ride, as well as ongoing executive questions such as:

  • What is the responsibility, and risk, of exhibiting personal initiative?
  • Why are some leaders able to exploit opportunity, while others remain frozen in a rapidly changing situation?
  • How can we continue to cultivate individual leadership in a global environment?

The selection of the battlefield is as dependent upon the needs and goals of the participants as it is upon logistics.For example, Antietam Creek, where General McClellan watched as his Corps commanders battered Lee’s army, offers an ideal location to discuss the tradeoff between the advantages of a surprise market entry vs. risk to the existing marketplace. Another example: The redoubt defense system at Saratoga encourages debate about the relevant role of technology/engineering and innovation in one’s own corporation.

Best Practices and Procedures

Corporate Staff Rides are highly customized experiential learning techniques. The Corporate Staff Rider leader weaves the battlefield history into the larger corporate context and uses it as backdrop to promote frank, face-to-face conversation between the participants. The goal of the Corporate Staff Ride is to help the participants clarify the issues they face, pinpoint positive and negative behaviors around those issues, and better understand how to best leverage their own roles and join forces. The seductiveness of history is exploited, not encouraged.

Corporate Staff Rides have three phases:

Preparation: The Corporate Staff Ride leader will work with you to:

  • Review executives’ training needs.
  • Select the appropriate battlefield based upon those training needs.
  • Assign each participant a historical figure and/or battle component, aligned with their individual training needs, for on-site presentation.
  • Develop the narrative that links the battlefield history to the boardroom concerns.
  • Identify key metrics such as pre- and post-surveys of participants or surveys across individual business units that measure change around a particular issue or procedure following the Corporate Staff Ride experience.

In the Field: The Corporate Staff Rider leader will:

  • Lead the visit and on-site discussion.
  • Identify the similarities facing the battlefield generals and the executives.
  • Provide opportunities for on-site documentation for future reference and review.

Post-Field Follow-Up:The Corporate Staff Ride leader will:

  • Review the battlefield history, on-site discussions, and participant interactions to provide insights and analysis about specific boardroom applications.

Ultimately, Corporate Staff Rides offer the lens of history through which to view 21st century business decisions. Ultimately executives are better equipped to face their own boardroom challenges by literally standing in a battlefield and asking:

  • Did this commander make the right decision at this point in the battle?
  • What would I have done based on the available information?
  • Did the subordinates perform as expected and fulfill their responsibilities to the leader?

Steven L. Ossad is the founder of Applied Battlefield Concepts LLC, which adopts military training tools for top managers. Author of “Major General Maurice Rose: World War II’s Greatest Forgotten Commander” and a military historian, Ossad worked as a Wall Street sell-side technology analyst for more than 20 years.

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