Lessons from the Battlefield: Learning Leadership On-site
History offers rich lessons in leadership, especially when the focus is on decision-making during times of war. Those lessons are even more powerful when the classroom is a battlefield. Wharton Executive Education recently led a group of 24 global leaders from New Jersey-based Chubb Insurance to the mountainous region of Italy where Allies fought entrenched Germans during World War II.
The program was part of Chubb Choices and Challenges of Leadership, which pairs Chubb’s top regional leaders with a key broker in the same region, strengthening the partnership between Chubb and its main sales distribution channel.
"We went to Italy because it's the site of multiple failures of leadership — failures in strategy, failures in decision making," recalls Todd Henshaw, PhD, director of Executive Leadership Programs at the Wharton School and former director of leadership and management programs at the United States Military Academy at West Point.
The three-day program included a day of classroom instruction and review of a leadership case from the 1996 Mt. Everest disaster, followed by two days of experiential learning in the field. The latter part is modeled on a staff ride, a technique used to train U.S. Army officers in leadership and decision-making. The group retraced the steps of Lt. Gen. Mark Clark, leader of the 5th U.S. Army in Italy, through a series of battles along the Italian Peninsula begun in fall 1943 that continued into early 1944. Participants also heard directly from Italian civilians who were there, and survived the destruction of entire villages and a nearby abbey.
Henshaw says three common learning themes emerged during the program:
- How do I set conditions and shape the environment so my people can be successful?
- How do I bring innovation back into my workplace and build a climate for it?
- How do I ensure I share the best thinking across the team and across the organization?
The hands-on nature of the program helped participants better understand their own styles of decision-making and how to be better leaders to their own teams. “A lot of choices and decisions leaders make on a battlefield are not dissimilar to what we face in a corporate environment every day,” observes Elizabeth McDaid, VP of Agency Education at Chubb Insurance, who coordinated the Italy trip. "It's all around understanding the markets that you are in, the competition that you're dealing with, the resources in terms of people and time that you have — there are parallels that are very easy to make."
McDaid was already familiar with Wharton’s history-based leadership programs, having taken a Chubb group to Gettysburg to learn about pivotal decisions during the three-day battle, which is widely considered the turning point of the Civil War.
“I saw how well it worked in Gettysburg and felt it was worth investment to take a group to Italy. I believe in experiential learning; I believe that being there truly enhances the learning experience,” she says.
Henshaw hopes that more companies will follow Chubb’s example and embrace a style of learning that has long been a foundation of all military leadership training. He emphasizes that it has direct application to the corporate world.
"The stories and case studies are very rich and are crafted to meet the learning needs of our clients, whether it’s risk management, transformational leadership, strategic thinking, or innovation. Participants live the story — and it's learning that lasts a lifetime."
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