Experiential learning requires that the learner step into uncharted territory and make the connections, post-experience, back to the workplace.
Last November, I had a chance to participate in an experiential learning program: The Conference Board’s Leadership Experience at Gettysburg. The three-day program is designed to focus on the events of this key battle of the American Civil War as seen through the eyes of those whose decisions drove the events, discussing and discovering what caused some to adapt, adjust and triumph and others to falter and fail. Over the years, I have wanted to participate in such a program so that I could know, firsthand, the value of these types of programs, as well as the ways in which corporate leaders would translate their own experiences into not only furthering their own development but also delivering on business imperatives. The opportunity presented itself; this is my account of that experience.
Prior to the program, I read, watched suggested films and answered a survey about my leadership style and what I hoped to gain from the program. The first evening of the program, we assembled in a historic inn — the initial headquarters of Union commander Gen. George Meade during the battle — and reviewed the events leading to the battle at Gettysburg. In our first group session, we began to explore a leadership framework through which we would view the decisions of the various leaders on both sides of the conflict.
For the next day and a half, we were on the battlefield, imagining those three days in July 1863 when the epic battle took place. Now case study questions were no longer rhetorical. We discussed the implications of key decisions made under pressure, without adequate information, and upon often incorrect assumptions, foiled or enhanced by twists of fate, and made by men whose sense of honor and duty shaped the actions they took. We stood near Seminary Ridge and discussed the decision-making process of Brig. Gen. John Buford, who chose to make a critical stand against superior Confederate numbers on the first day of battle. We walked in the peach orchard where Maj. Gen. Daniel Sickles chose to act independently, exposing Union troops and missing a critical opportunity to defeat Confederate Gen. James Longstreet.
We sat in the stillness of Little Round Top and tried to understand the resolve of Col. Joshua Chamberlain of the 20th Maine who, after suffering massive losses and running out of ammunition, ordered his remaining soldiers to fix bayonets and march down the hill into enemy fire because they had committed to hold that hill “at all hazards.”
We listened to the story of the Confederate artillery barrage on the final day of battle, mistakenly believed to have been effective in destroying Union guns but which had in actuality overshot the mark, leaving the Union artillery intact. Believing the barrage successful and his army invincible, Gen. Robert E. Lee ordered 12,000 troops to march in parade dress formation a mile toward the now silent Union guns on Cemetery Ridge. We walked the same field, trying to imagine the commitment of those Confederate troops, largely farm boys from North Carolina and Virginia, to walk through open fields directly into enemy fire in an attempt to break through the Union lines and turn the tide on the final day of battle. Despite the slaughter all around them, waves of soldiers kept coming, driven by a belief in the Confederate cause and in an infallible general who had inspired them.
We stood on Veterans Day in the national cemetery at Gettysburg and listened to a reading of Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address delivered by a participant in our group who was a veteran, surrounded by the seemingly endless rows of gravestones bearing silent witness to the simple elegance of the words that gave meaning to sacrifice.
Against a backdrop of daily briefings, battlefield maps, leader biographies and military history, our expert facilitators led us through discussion sessions to bind history — what insights can be gleaned from it — and the future — how leaders can change to become more effective.
There were regular, structured “link backs” to individual as well as group challenges as identified in our survey responses, as well as group discussions. The emphasis was on the “how” and “why” versus simply the “what,” framed within a leadership model germane to and applicable in both business and military environments.
Passionate about the battle and the leadership challenges that emerge in the crucible of war, our guides made the events come alive through their detailed accounts. They asked probing questions and they listened; we began to hear the leadership lessons the silent fields and monuments and cannons whispered to us.
I left with extensive notes and materials to continue the exploration. I took away key learnings about the criticality of clear communication about the leader’s intent; the need to calibrate latitude given to subordinates; the cost of inadequate succession plans; the need to determine the critical from the merely important; and the consequence of team misalignment.
But, at the end of the day, what matters is how individuals or teams use the experience to impact performance, improve decision making and deliver results back at their respective organizations. Past participants spoke of applying lessons learned back in the workplace:
“The two days spent on the Gettysburg battlefield provided immediately applicable lessons that have become core to how my team plans, interacts and executes for success,” said Deb Affonsa, senior director of operational strategy and transaction management at utility company PG&E Corp. USA. “Put simply, [The Conference Board] Gettysburg has provided a common language and approach for communicating and decision making.”
Mike Finch, director of asset protection at electronics retailer Best Buy UK, agreed. “Back in the workplace, we find ourselves thinking about leadership within the context of characters from the Gettysburg battlefield,” he said. “We have a means to place corporate decisions against the learnings from 150 years ago.”
I had hoped I would leave The Leadership Experience at Gettysburg program with insights with which to continue my journey of becoming a better leader. I did. From discussing Buford’s decision to dismount and fight on the first day of battle, rather than simply reporting back from his scouting mission because he saw the critical importance of delaying the advance of the arriving Confederate troops until Union infantry reinforcements could arrive, I learned that the responsibility to act may trump intended plans. From discussions about Chamberlain’s leadership style, I saw the importance of “hearing” what people are not saying and the criticality of separating the important from the critical.
From Lee’s selection of Gen. Richard Ewell to command, it’s clear that succession plans are flawed when available candidates are few and readiness is assumed but not tested. Lee’s indirect communication style did not translate to Ewell as it would have to Lee’s highly successful “right arm,” Stonewall Jackson, who had died just prior to this battle, nor did he successfully convey his sense of urgency or intent. And when Longstreet’s strategic argument to Lee to win the initial battle and then withdraw failed to dissuade Lee from wanting to win the war itself on this very battlefield, it set in motion the circumstances that prevented success in the coming days of battle: a clear example of the dangers of a team that is not aligned.
I left with a renewed appreciation for those leaders who rose to the ultimate leadership challenge with lives and nations hanging in the balance. It was their prior learning, both formal and experiential, that shaped the outcome not only of that battle, but of a nation. I doubt my decisions will ever have such profound implications, but the lessons of Gettysburg’s leaders will resonate with me always. I will always be deeply grateful for having had the privilege to continue my leadership journey through the fields of Gettysburg.
Experiential Learning In Theory
With pressure to develop leaders in a time of tighter budgets and shrinking timelines, those charged with leadership development responsibilities look for effective and cost-effective solutions with lasting impact.
So how do learning and development departments prepare current and future leaders? Current and projected corporate leadership demands drive internal competency models, which guide the creation of leadership development programs. External strategic partners and thought leaders can provide insights and best practices to accelerate the development process as well as enhance actual programs. And there are critical lessons to be learned by hearing directly from internal leaders, who under the best of circumstances are intricately involved in shaping the programs and actively involved in delivering them.
The best leadership programs use a variety of methods, combining core classroom segments with online support and e-learning, action learning projects and experiential learning to create the desired and demonstrable leadership development outcomes. The 2009 ASTD-Booz Allen Hamilton Strategic and Tactical Approaches to Executive Development Study looked at approaches to executive development, finding that classroom-based learning is used to a high or very high degree 65 percent of the time, followed closely by experiential learning at 53 percent. Other common elements of top development programs include coaching, action learning and 360 feedback.
Both action learning and experiential learning appeal to seasoned adult learners; the learner is at the center, requiring active engagement to be effective. While similar in terms of applying theory to real life, an action learning project usually centers on a company- or industry-specific challenge and builds on expertise, whereas experiential learning requires that the learner step into uncharted territory and make the connections, post-experience, back to the workplace.
Created by educational theorist David A. Kolb in the early 1970s, experiential learning theory posits that “learning is the process whereby knowledge is created through transformation of experience.” This approach prescribes four elements as necessary for success: experiencing, reflecting, thinking and acting.
Marshall Goldsmith speaks of the impact that action learning can have, as it is founded on adult learning principles, and wonders why we don’t see more of it in organizations. Through a variety of applications — from business-specific action learning projects that address immediate corporate challenges to experiential simulations — well-designed programs can be a core part of successful leadership development programs.
Internal leadership development approaches often include third-party experiential learning programs that use these elements as the touchstones of their offerings wherever they are conducted — on mountain cliffs, in inner-city hospitals, on the high seas or on the battlefield. Because it requires heightened attention to unfamiliar, incoming information, experiential learning impacts the learner — intellectually, emotionally and physically — creating a powerful combination that often leads to higher levels of retention and application back in the workplace.
There are many paths to leadership development. Experiential learning can offer participants a rare developmental opportunity to leave behind preconceived notions, stand in the midst of uncertainty, gain new insights and develop the courage to move forward in more profound and effective ways. The experience may not be directly visible for some time as the lessons are assimilated, but the more uniquely meaningful the experience, the more likely it is to have a long-term impact on a leader’s career.
Rebecca Ray is a seasoned talent management professional with more than 20 years of academic, corporate and consulting experience. She can be reached at email@example.com.
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