Washington and Lincoln's Battlefield Lessons for CEOs

Abraham Lincoln and George Washington
Source: Wikipedia
Abraham Lincoln and George Washington

GUEST AUTHOR BLOG by: Steven L. Ossad author of "Major General Maurice Rose."

Presidents' Day typically means commemorating Washington's and Lincoln's birthdays by catching a sale or enjoying a day off from work. Although the political accomplishments and contributions of these commander-in-chiefs are heralded, the lessons of leadership displayed by the men who led their armies and fought the battles are rarely looked at in boardrooms. As a military historian/author and former Wall Street sell-side technology analyst, I believe that's a big mistake.

American Revolution and Civil War battlefields contain crucial insights for 21st century executives wrestling over issues of global decision making, supply chain management, resource deployment, management changes, or efficient communications. Historic grounds, like Saratoga where General Horatio Gates crushed the dashing British general "Gentleman Johnny" Burgoyne, or Antietam where General George B. McClellan stopped General Robert E. Lee cold in his tracks, are the ultimate classrooms for teaching leadership, decision-making, collaboration and risk-taking under extreme pressure.

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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% per year. Where will you get the biggest impact for the dollar spent?

I say, "staff rides" may be your answer.

Source: Amazon

Staff rides are on-location training events that began in the U.S. military at the turn of the last century. Officers visited and analyzed battlefields to better understand past - and especially future enemies. Today, Corporate Staff Rides bring executives to a select battlefield to study the decisions of the campaign for the purpose of drawing parallels between those decisions and their corporate priorities.

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I appreciate corporate retreats and motivational speakers as well as corporate classrooms, online programs, and other interactive initiatives. Yet, even in our digitally driven age, nothing beats actually being there - where something historically important happened - for sparking the kind of face-to-face conversations among colleagues that can help frame the leadership issues we all face.

Imagine walking behind Antietam Creek and standing where General McClellan watched as his Corps commanders battered Lee's army and discussing the trade-off between the advantage of surprise vs. disruption in the marketplace. Or, standing next to the redoubt defense system at Saratoga and reflecting on the relevant role of technology/engineering and innovation in one's own corporation.

You don't have to know or care about military affairs to take a business lesson from the battlefield because at heart, the Corporate Staff Ride addresses perennial senior management questions:

  • 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 I harness chance and wield it for my good fortune?

Corporate staff rides battlefields are selected for their relevance to the participants' concerns and goals. The Corporate staff rides leader weaves the battlefield's history and personalities together to encourage unvarnished conversation about the group's real time management issues by discussing questions such as:

  • 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?

Battlefields contain some of history's most difficult stories, but they are uniquely equipped to inspire our preparation for the challenges of tomorrow. This requires looking at and listening to what these sites can teach us. The choice is easy because studying the past is as relevant for today's corporate leaders as it is for military commanders.

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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 an award-wining military historian, he worked as a Wall Street sell-side technology analyst for more than 20 years.