Learning Under Fire

The military is known for its discipline and strategic thinking. Lessons from Gettysburg, Normandy, and other military battles can forge strong, effective leaders.

Do you find meeting your department’s goals an uphill battle? When budgets are small, and learners unengaged, it’s hard to feel like the victory of educated, high-performing employees is close at hand. The military—with missions in which life and limb are at stake and goals much larger than individual units—can be an inspirational and instructive model.

Here is a look at two programs that are bringing the approach and wisdom of the military to corporate training programs.

Put Learners at the Center of the Battle

Learning content can be abstract and hard to relate to. One way around that is taking learners to where the lessons were learned in the first place. In the case of the military, that’s the battlefield. The Leadership Experiences program takes corporate groups to the sites where battles such as Gettysburg during the Civil War, Normandy during World War II, and Lexington and Concord and Valley Forge during the Revolutionary War were fought.

Ed Ruggero, founder and president of The Leadership Experiences program, says there are direct parallels between a battle such as Gettysburg and the challenges facing corporations today. He says lessons the Battle of Gettysburg has for learners include:

  • How leaders can make the right calls amid ill-defined conditions, incomplete information, and pressure.
  • The intricacies of decision-making in large organizations, and how culture affects what’s possible.
  • How successful leaders share their vision for success and reduce the possibility of misinterpretation.
  • How leaders develop imagination and courage in themselves and others.
  • Why character is a central element of leadership.

“By examining the leadership challenges facing commanders in the largest battle ever fought in North America, participants learn practical, usable lessons that can benefit their modern organizations,” Ruggero says.

Specific lessons that can be taught include the importance of taking action and being proactive. Ruggero teaches this lesson in a portion of the Gettysburg course called “McPherson’s Ridge: Inaction Is Not an Option.” This section of the course tells the story of Federal Calvary Brigadier General John Buford, who had to take action without the benefit of full information or detailed orders. Brigadier General Buford rode into the Gettysburg area on the morning of June 30, 1863, to investigate reports that Confederate infantry had been spotted to the north and west. “Buford had only general instructions from his superiors; command of the Army of the Potomac had changed just two days earlier, and the new commander, George Meade, was hardly in control yet. But Buford was a professional soldier, and he knew inaction was not an option,” Ruggero explains. “In the absence of instructions, Buford stepped up and took charge, taking an enormous, though calculated, risk. He chose the battlefield, called for help, and kept his superiors informed. His choices that morning shaped the battle that became a turning point of the war.”

From Battlefield to Boardroom

Training Top 125 winner Capital BlueCross discovered first-hand the value of learning corporate lessons on the battlefield. The company sends a select group of executives to participate in the Gettysburg Leadership Experience every year. “During the two-day experience, the behaviors and decisions of key leaders from the battles are analyzed. Throughout the experience, the participants witness first-hand how the lack of collaboration and cross-functional behavior affected the outcomes,” says Vice President of Talent Management and Organizational Development Debra Fine. “They apply these lessons to their own critical business decisions. One of the leaders we examine in detail is Dr. Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, and the Battle of Little Round Top. The learning experience is dramatic and leaves indelible impressions on the participants.”

The participants of this program at Capital BlueCross are directors and above, who are identified by the senior team as leaders in the organization who have the potential to achieve significant impact on the organization’s performance. This program launched in 2011, and Capital BlueCross has conducted three cohorts.

“Given the tremendous results and feedback from past participants, last year the senior team, including the CEO, decided to engage in the Gettysburg Leadership Experience for their personal development and enhanced team effectiveness,” says Senior Director of Talent Management Jodi Lynne Blanch. “Every participant has expressed in his or her own words the long-lasting effect the entire experience has had on his or her leadership approach.”

Among the results from the program shared by Blanch:

  • Every member of the senior team stated this was the single most impactful leadership experience of their careers.
  • 100 percent of graduates demonstrate an increased ability to make more effective business decisions.
  • 100 percent of graduates reported increased self awareness and leadership effectiveness through peer mentoring and networking.
  • 100 percent of graduates were selected to lead strategy action committees, identifying process improvement opportunities to enhance service, improve efficiencies, and reduce costs.

The corporate environment is different from the battlefield, but the lessons transfer well, says Senior Vice President of Human Resources Steve Krupinski. “Military work is risky, high-pressured, and rapidly evolving. It calls for extraordinary adaptability on the ground, clear understanding of a leader’s intent, and delegated execution. These are the same skills that are required in the corporate environment. By focusing on discipline and honing key skills, the military teaches us that a mastery of key leadership skills is the foundation for success.”

Instilling Accountability and Perseverance

A sense of responsibility and a resilience to meet challenges are just a few of the lessons the Navy SEALs can teach your employees, according to Brian “Iron Ed” Hiner, a retired SEAL himself, and author of the LA Times best-selling book, “First, Fast, Fearless: How to Lead Like a Navy SEAL.” Hiner says corporate employees can learn from the SEALs to take ownership of their assignments and goals. “When people understand they are accountable for the outcome and the results, no matter who is at fault on their team, they learn to stop pointing fingers and have extreme ownership of the outcome,” Hiner explains. “When they do this, they truly understand the cause and effect of their leadership and actions, and, therefore, do everything in their power to affect the results.”

Hiner says the SEALs teach the lesson of accountability from the beginning in SEAL Training. “We task the students with something difficult and allow three answers from the officers when asked if they completed the task. Those answers are ‘Yes,’ ‘No,’ and ‘I messed up,’” he says. “We understand that people inside their team may have not done their job, but the officers understand they own the outcome no matter what.”

Learning to thrive in changing, unpredictable conditions is another valuable lesson the SEALs can teach corporate learners. “In the SEAL Teams, we understand that most of the time, we will have to lead in the world of VUCA (Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, and Ambiguity),” Hiner says. “Often, the environment is changing, in which we say the enemy has a vote, so we have to be able to thrive even during chaos; it’s understood we all have to do more with less, so it’s important that we accept the position we are in.”

He says the answer to meeting the challenge of unpredictable circumstances is for the leader of a work team to put the needs of the team over the needs of the individual. Doing this, says Hiner, requires selfless leadership in which the mission comes first, then individual team members, and then, finally, the leader can worry about him or herself.

It is the SEAL leader’s job, just as it is the corporate leader’s job, to protect the work group’s perimeter. “Outside the perimeter are the enemies, such as market volatility, technology changes, lower budgets, toxic teammates, etc. Inside the perimeter are accountability, trust, loyalty, hard work, respect, etc.,” he explains. “Leaders do not let the enemy inside the perimeter. Enemies such as toxic teammates, finger pointing, laziness, or any other negative force will tear a team apart. The stronger the team, the more the organization will thrive during times of adversity.”

Another lesson the SEAL approach can teach is how to effectively handle failure. Not every mission succeeds, just as not every business plan works out. The key, says Hiner, is making a review of business plans, whether successful or not, routine. “All elite organizations are learning organizations. In the SEAL Teams, we do what we call AARs (After Action Reviews) for everything we do, from big missions to small training events, both formal and informal,” Hiner says. “It’s not a finger-pointing event, it’s looking at what we intended to do, what actually happened, what went wrong, and how we are going to correct it. Everyone is subjected to it.”

And just as you can learn from failure, so, too, can you use victory to firm up your company’s success culture. Hiner says companies can take a cue from the SEALs and use the victory to set the stage for the next win by recognizing the work teams that successfully accomplished their mission. “We recognize the big wins, but it’s important to constantly set an environment that rewards those who excel and do the right things daily,” says Hiner. “People want to be winners, so we focus on those who win and excel. This creates a positive, competitive spirit within the organization and constantly pushes us to be a better organization on a daily basis, not just during the big victories.”

Hiner says recognizing the small victories keeps employees inspired to continue improving: “Combat and business are often unforgiving, so developing teams that are constantly racing to the front is critical for organizations to be as successful as they can be.”


  • Successful leaders are able to make the right calls amid murky, ill-defined conditions, incomplete information, and high pressure.
  • Successful leaders share their vision for success and reduce the possibility of misinterpretation.
  • Successful leaders understand how collaboration and cross-functional behavior affect business outcomes.
  • The best leaders know they are accountable for the outcome no matter who is at fault on their team.
  • Successful leadership requires a selfless perspective in which the mission comes first, then individual team members, and then, finally, the leader can worry about him or herself.
  • It’s critical to review all training events and business plans, from big “missions” to small training events, both formal and informal.
  • Use victories to set the stage for the next win by recognizing the work teams that successfully accomplished their mission.


By Randy Manner, Major General, U.S. Army, Retired, and Senior Partner, Korn Ferry Hay Group

Ask non-Veteran friends and colleagues why they think military leaders have teams that would do anything for them, and some mistakenly may say, “Blind trust.” This couldn’t be further from the truth. What makes military leadership so effective is a shared belief that the sum is greater than the whole and that the best performers are not only the ones who stand above and shine more brightly, but those who help their teammates in their time of need.

This type of fierce focus on the team and personal accountability doesn’t happen overnight. It starts at the very core of what the organization—whether it’s the military or corporate America—stands for, what its mission/vision is, that its team members know and embrace that mission/vision, and that it is continually communicated and reinforced.

A February 2016 Korn Ferry executive survey highlights the importance of strong organizational values. The majority of respondents (69 percent) said the No. 1 factor that would most dramatically improve their feelings about their job is working for a company whose culture is aligned with their values.

While more and more corporations are putting a stake in the ground to identify and communicate values, they can learn from the military and reward those who exemplify organizational values—and it doesn’t have to just be about money.

The military publicly rewards those who live the values through medals and public citations. Being outwardly valued in front of your fellow soldiers—or cube-mates—goes a long way toward enhancing dedication.

But along with getting rewarded for doing what’s right, corporate America can learn accountability from the military—what happens when something goes wrong?

It’s OK for corporate bosses to not put up with excuses. Sure, sometimes things go awry. Insist the people who are responsible for those mistakes take accountability, learn from the mistakes, and apply that learning to new experiences.

It’s called learning agility, and it’s the single greatest predictor of success, whether you are in an Army tank in Afghanistan or a Think Tank in Bethesda, MD.

Understand the mission, embrace the values, publicly reward for jobs well done, acknowledge mistakes, and learn. Always learn.

Lorri Freifeld
Lorri Freifeld is the editor/publisher of Training magazine. She writes on a number of topics, including talent management, training technology, and leadership development. She spearheads two awards programs: the Training APEX Awards and Emerging Training Leaders. A writer/editor for the last 30 years, she has held editing positions at a variety of publications and holds a Master’s degree in journalism from New York University.