By Rachel M. Anderson, Freelance Writer
(Minneapolis) - How will we win or even survive in this highly competitive and uncertain world? Can we communicate more effectively? Is it possible to make good decisions despite imperfect information?
These are all questions good leaders will ask themselves at one time or another, and according to Jeff Appelquist, founder and president of Blue Knight Battlefield Seminars LLC, leadership lessons from the past are the key to improving every business' future.
"It's a really frustrating period in our history for a lot of reasons. We're going through incredibly tough times economically, we're fighting two wars, and we have political leaders in Washington who don't talk to each other. But these are all situations we've faced as a nation before and overcome," points out Appelquist, who is a former Marine Corps infantry officer, practicing attorney and corporate executive.
Appelquist believes so strongly in the concept of learning leadership lessons from the past, that while working as a human resources generalist at Best Buy Corporation in Richfield, Minn., he developed battlefield seminars for senior executives. His first seminar took place in 2007 at the location where Custer met his demise at the Little Bighorn River in Montana.
A year later when Best Buy offered voluntary buyouts to its corporate employees, he was among the first to take advantage. "I saw it as an opportunity to shift my focus towards the leadership program I had been developing and believed in so strongly," he says.
With Best Buy's blessing, Appelquist started up Blue Knight Battlefield Seminars LLC in Feb. 2008. Currently, the seminars being offered look back at the leadership decisions made during two of America's most significant conflicts: the battles at Gettysburg in Pennsylvania and the Little Bighorn in Montana. To date, Appelquist has taken nearly 200 corporate executives on battlefield tours to teach the principles that great leaders should live by.
As they make their way across the battlefield at Gettysburg and study the actions of Union generals such as George Meade, John Buford, and Dan Sickles, and Confederate generals Robert E. Lee, James Longstreet, and Richard Ewell, executives learn that they should make sure the audience understands their message, that they should cherish people who give them honest feedback and that when all else fails they should innovate and lead the charge.
At the Little Bighorn they learn that a unified vision must permeate the team, that without trust the battle is lost and that they should care for their people. These lessons are learned while studying the actions of George Armstrong Custer and his Native American counterparts, Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse.
Other leadership lessons the executives take away from the seminars: how to be sure they are using the right information as they make decisions, how to communicate more effectively, the importance of trust and relationships and the importance of making sure your team has a common purpose that all members clearly understand.
When Brian Gauger, senior vice president of physician strategies for Fresenius Medical Care, took his first leadership team to the battlefield, he learned the latter was where his company's problems were centered. "We had become relatively siloed in our areas of communication and growth, so I turned to Jeff to try to help us develop leadership skills for individuals. He helped me realize we had multiple goals for multiple groups, but we didn't have one consistent common purpose or common goal for the whole group and we needed one."
With Appelquist's assistance, everyone attending the seminar agreed on the following common purpose: "It is our responsibility to manage and drive all growth initiatives within the organization."
This goal is now reinforced daily throughout the company both electronically, and verbally, in face-to-face meetings. "What Jeff and his organization have done is really help me understand the different dynamics that go on in my group and be able to assess, from a leadership perspective, how to unify the group. The changes we have made have really driven improvements for the bottom line at our company," says Gauger.
The lessons Gauger's team, and leaders from many other organizations have learned on the battlefield are outlined in Sacred Ground: Leadership Lessons From Gettysburg and the Little Bighorn (Beaver's Pond Press, February 2010, $25.99), a book Appelquist wrote shortly after leaving Best Buy. While originally intended to be a companion piece for his seminars, Appelquist quickly realized the book had a lot to offer as a stand-alone piece as well.
"The book is jam packed with practical examples, both modern day and historical, that can be used every day in a manager's life," says Gail Dorn, a senior marketing and public relations consultant for Target Corporation. She attended the Blue Knight Battlefield Seminar at Gettysburg last year and says she took away some important lessons about the importance of clear communication.
Sacred Ground is now available for purchase at www.beaverspondbooks.com, as well as the author's website: www.blueknightseminars.com.The book is also available at Amazon.com, BarnesandNoble.com and at local book stores.