Leadership Lessons from Gettysburg

"Experiential" courses in exotic locales such as the famous Civil War battlefield are the new rage in executive development

As a senior director for insurer Health Care Service (HCSC) in Dallas, Steve Thompson is used to learning from his company mentor. But on a Tuesday morning in June, standing on a hill in eastern Pennsylvania, he heard from a new business adviser: General John Buford, a Union cavalry officer in the U.S. Civil War.

Thompson was learning about Buford's leadership prowess in Gettysburg, site of the famous battle of 1863. Military historian Cole C. Kingseed talked about how Buford had been sent to survey the enemy but instead dismounted his horsemen to defend a ridge, giving his colleagues an edge in the coming battle. "He had the courage to execute," said Thompson as executives from companies such as State Farm and Nationwide (NFS) nodded in agreement. Then they moved on to Cemetery Hill to debate whether Confederate General Robert E. Lee was a poor succession planner.

The three-day Gettysburg course, organized at a cost of up to $5,000 per person by the Conference Board, is part of a growing trend in leadership programs: experiential training. Even with shrinking budgets for lavish off-site events, companies are pouring money into programs that promise unique ways to develop talent. Among those that have shipped managers off to Gettysburg: Pfizer (PFE), Sony (SNE), Honda Motor (HMC), Target (TGT), and the beleaguered Freddie Mac (FRE). The $12.3 billion market in leadership development is expected to expand annually by up to 5% over the next few years, according to research firm Bersin & Associates, almost double the growth of overall corporate training. And Bersin has found one-third of companies now use some form of experiential leadership development. That means more incentive to create offerings that generate buzz.

Along with Civil War battlefields, companies can sign up for leadership lessons involving sailing, archaeological digs, fire walking (walking barefoot over hot coals), and even horse whispering. The talent consultancy ChangeMaker, in Upper Rissington, Britain, takes groups of managers from companies such as Electronic Data Systems (EDS) and Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS) to East Africa, where they visit several villages of the sprawling, semi-nomadic Maasai tribe. The cost: about $4,000 per head, plus airfare. At debriefing sessions, participants talk about how the Maasai maintain a consistent culture across such a large organization. ChangeMaker Chief Executive Chris Howe argues that "if you put people in a hotel, if you lecture at them, they're not discovering for themselves."

No Clear Payoff

Maybe so, but paying for that insight may be a hard sell to human resources directors. It's tough enough to gauge the return on traditional leadership programs, never mind trying to attach metrics to an executive's newfound mastery of tribal politics or ability to communicate with horses. "For these to work, they have to have a strong connection between what you see there, what you feel, and what you're going to face when you get back to the office," says Michael Useem, a management professor at University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School. Useem has taught MBA students and business professionals by engaging them in Shakespeare plays, modern dancing, hiking in Patagonia, meditation, and, yes, battlefield tours.

Even if some courses have dubious educational value, they can serve as incentives to rising stars. HCSC's Thompson, for one, says traipsing around Gettysburg gave him "a sense of reward" for a job well done. As with a lecture or video, the tips may not stick. But for the lucky executives who receive such special grooming, the training can double as a company-paid vacation.

See the reporter's narrated slide show of his visit to Gettysburg.

See BusinessWeek's slide show for a guide book to experiential leadership training programs.

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