Battlefield leadership

On July 3, 1863, 12,000 Confederate soldiers under the command of Gen. George S. Pickett charged the Union troops on Seminary Ridge at Gettysburg in the bloodiest battle ever fought on U.S. soil. A collage of misunderstandings, misinformation and miscalculations ensured their defeat, and by day’s end, two-thirds of the Southern soldiers were dead or captured. The Confederates would never recover.

Each October, a group of IT leaders walks the hills and hollows of the Gettysburg battlefield retracing Pickett’s charge, but they aren’t studying history; they’re studying business.

Dick Dooley, a founding member of the Society for Information Management and creator of the Leadership Learning Forums, and Hal Nelson, a military historian and retired U.S. Army general, have combined two learning strategies to create a new concept in IT executive education: the battlefield leadership seminar.

For Nelson, the seminars are grounded in a long army tradition of “staff rides,” in which military personnel visit battlefields to study leadership. For Dooley, the basis is “cross-industry field trips” in which IT people move out of their comfort zones to absorb leadership lessons in a different environment.

“We found that if we took bankers to a bank, they didn’t see what we wanted them to see,” Dooley explains. In a familiar environment you “know it all” and are less open to learning. Bring those bankers to a battlefield, and suddenly they’re novices again. “Against the background of your ignorance you can see things in higher relief,” Dooley explains. “You can turn your ignorance into a learning element.”

“It’s interesting to be taken completely out of the normal context,” agrees John Fisher, CIO at SmithBucklin Corp. in Chicago, who recently walked the Gettysburg battlefield. “You’re much freer to challenge your perceptions and assumptions and more able to take in lessons.”

Kicking rocks

The seminars take place at Gettysburg and the battlefield at Normandy. A typical day starts with a historical lecture for context. Then the group moves around the battlefield. They look at who had the initiative, which side was on defense, what the commander was trying to do to maintain the initiative, what the plans were, what the difficulties in executing the plans were and how enemy action modified the plans and execution.

They talk about executive succession planning — a high priority in battle — and the characteristics of high-performing leadership teams. “We look at emergent leaders,” says Nelson. “What difference does it make if three, four, five echelons down, the leaders do understand what the organization is trying to do and act with imagination to achieve those ends?”

He adds, “We also enjoy the fresh air and kick the rocks.”

Some participants question the link between war and business, but not for long. “Plenty of people don’t think they can learn much from a military organization because the leaders just give orders and people carry them out or they get flogged,” Nelson says. “But armies are large human organizations characterized by human activity like work-arounds and foot-dragging. You see a lot of that on the battlefield, so that brings a big ‘Aha!’ People realize leadership makes a difference.”

“War is about leadership, and business is about leadership,” agrees Linda Fraley, CIO at Lincoln National Life Insurance Co. in Hartford, Conn. “The fact that one takes place on a battlefield and one in a skyscraper probably is not material. The issue is the courage it takes to lead.”

Making connections

The seminar helps participants make those kinds of connections. However, “it’s not a how-to kind of seminar,” Fisher says. “You are challenged to think about things and try to understand your assumptions and your way of approaching things. It shows you the consequences of actions. You’re left to figure out how to apply that yourself when you go back. It’s not easy.”

Participants have drawn a wide range of lessons and applied them in a variety of ways. For example, “don’t try to make a cavalry guy work the artillery,” Fraley says. “You’re not doing anyone a favour by keeping someone in the wrong position. You won’t just lose that person; you may lose the entire flank.”

“At Gettysburg, the Union’s ability to get messages to Washington was very good, but the ability to get messages point to point on the battlefield was troublesome,” says Vince Kellen, vice-president of information systems at DePaul University in Chicago. “The same thing happens in corporations where the executive vision can be stated but the ability to interpret that two levels below is troublesome,” he explains. “So we’ve focused our structure in IT on that close communication so everybody is kept in better alignment.”

Robert E. Lee badly underestimated the size of the Union army he was about to confront because the cavalry — his eyes and ears — was out in the countryside, Fisher says. “We think everybody has the same base of information we have, but they don’t. You really do need to make sure everyone knows what you know all up and down line. If they don’t, people will make decisions based on the information they have.”

Some might say it’s crass to use life-and-death struggles to illustrate business leadership concepts. But Nelson says the differences and similarities between the two are part of the perspective the seminar brings. “Maybe people are too convinced that they’re in a life-and-death struggle at work — and they aren’t,” he says. “They’re doing a hard job to the best of their ability. But that’s what people do in life-and-death struggles.”

History’s lessons

The connection between the Battle of Gettysburg and life in IT may not be immediately apparent, but participants in battlefield seminars have drawn interesting parallels. Here are just a few:

-Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson had a tremendously trusting relationship. When Lee lost Jackson, his new direct report, James Longstreet, hadn’t yet earned that level of trust when he argued forcefully against George S. Pickett’s charge. Lee ignored his advice, and the battle was lost. Lesson: Trust among the executive team is critical.

-The Confederate army communicated primarily through signal flags, which were highly unreliable because of smoke and weather conditions. The Union had the advantage of rudimentary telegraph for more efficient and effective communication. Lesson: Effective use of communications technology can enable a company to excel.

-President Lincoln’s goal was preservation of the Union, but the war didn’t gain wide support in the North until he signed the Emancipation Proclamation, making it a fight to end slavery. Lesson: When trying to lead change, choose your issues carefully.

-The North moved supplies in a supply train. The South didn’t have an enterprise-wide supply-train effort and Confederate soldiers were often distracted by the need to live off the land. Lesson: A better supply chain is a competitive advantage.

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