Train Leaders With a Staff Ride

The concept of a Staff Ride is learning from history. It has been said, “those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” This may be ok, if everything goes according to plan, but the old military axiom more often rings true: when the first shot is fired, the plan often goes out the window. So the question then becomes, how can you best learn from history.

Since the late 1800’s military officer’s have learned leadership lessons by participating in Staff Rides. They began as training exercises for the German General Staff and were later adapted by the US Army. The Staff Ride is usually conducted in three distinct phases: (1) study a historical battle, (2) discuss what happened and what lessons can learned from the future, and then (3) conduct a site visit to walk the terrain and understand what happened. When Staff Rides were conducted on European battlefields for the German General Staff, they usually studied battles from the Napoleonic wars. The US Army often utilized battles from the American Civil War as the basis for their Staff Rides. Although the technology of war changed over the years, the concepts of leadership and strategy often remain constant despite more modern weapons and systems. By studying how leaders dealt with the challenges of the past, it is possible to glean insights for the future. The application of lessons learned can allow leaders to avoid costly mistakes when they find themselves dealing with leadership challenges in the future.

The concept of a Staff Ride has now been expanded. Although the military still uses Staff Rides to train officers, other organizations have now benefited from similar learning exercises. For example, the US Forest Service conducts Staff Rides to train their leaders to fight forest fires and save lives. The use the same basic format: study an historical example, hold a robust discussion, and walk the terrain. By taking future leaders on Staff Rides, they can impart valuable lessons, including some rather difficult lessons about how some fire fighters lost their lives because they failed to take the correct actions while fighting a wildfire. These are clearly lessons that you want to impart to future leaders so that history does not repeat itself.

Corporations are now also using Staff Rides to train their leaders. There are valuable lessons that can be learned from history. Business leaders can benefit from using historical examples including studying military history to learn valuable leadership lessons. They can use the same three part format, however, with the help of a skilled facilitator, they can also bridge the gap from the lessons learned from history to apply them to contemporary business. Dealing with the basic challenges of  leadership, decision making, allocating resources, and overcoming obstacles are but a few of the fundamental challenges for leaders that transcend time and circumstances. Understanding how leaders have dealt with these challenges in the past, even in distinctly different circumstances, provides insights for those who take the time to study how they would deal with these same issues. Then, when they are faced with future challenges, they can fall back on the “decision process” even though the circumstances make be quite different. In many ways this is the same process used by leading business schools to promote learning through case studies; however, the focus of a Staff Ride is on learning leadership and strategy and not financial decisions.  There are lots of fine business schools that can teach the fundamentals of finance, but leadership is an art that requires thoughtful preparation, reflection, and application.  A Staff ride is one way to provide leaders with the opportunity to prepare and reflect on how they would apply lessons from the history.