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War, inc.

Corporate leaders learn to prevail in business on the bloody battlefields of Europe

Author Dan Carlinsky Illustration Brian Miller


Count Helmuth von Moltke, the 19th-century Prussian military mastermind, used to prepare his officers-in-training by taking them to historical battlefields. The idea was that the immediacy of these field trips would allow for a deeper understanding of military strategy than study on paper alone. The idea has stuck—around the world, battlefield staff rides remain a big part of military training. What the count probably didn’t anticipate, though, are some of the less bloody ways this notion would be applied 150 years later.

Peter Herrly, a retired U.S. Army colonel and military scholar in Paris, is more familiar than most with the ideas of von Moltke. Under contract with the U.S. Army in Europe, he oversees a stable of 25 historians who lead battlefield tours for midlevel officers. In a spinoff of that work, on the same historic terrains and using the same methods, he has guided groups of executives from the likes of Goldman Sachs, Salomon Smith Barney and KPMG. The rides are held a dozen or so times a year at battlefields across Europe, often in France, and involve anywhere from 10 to 25 clients.

The trips, Herrly says, “are designed to help leaders reflect on management topics using the medium of battle.” Such topics, he adds, include “cohesion, communication, technology, strategy or simply leadership.” While he is quick to point out that he isn’t equating running a company with overrunning an enemy, Herrly believes that successful leadership, in business as in war, is often a matter of acting quickly and decisively in a crisis. “A staff ride is human activity under pressure generalized,” he says. “These are experiences for managers to draw on when they have to ask themselves, ‘What should I do now?’”

The idea that business leaders can learn from military strategists is nothing new. What is different about Herrly’s take on the tradition is that it shifts the emphasis from the theoretical to the visceral. While there are discussions about tactical maneuvers and attrition rates, the more vital lessons are often a matter of what people feel rather than what they think. Herrly doesn’t want clients to grasp only the who and what of these battles; he wants them to be able to smell the blood, to contemplate the horrors that unfolded while standing on the same ground.

“War is a very difficult human activity with a lot of sacrifice, a lot of suffering,” Herrly says. “The more you connect with that, the more you add to the power of what you’re seeing.”

Normandy is one of Herrly’s favorite destinations, in part because it looks much the same today as it did to the G.I.s who landed there nearly 70 years ago—the same pastures and orchards, the same narrow blacktop lanes hemmed in by high hedges. On such charged terrain, it isn’t difficult to call up the emotions felt by officers who made life-and-death decisions there. So powerful are these experiences, in fact, that Herrly has to work to shift people’s focus from their surroundings to the matter at hand.  

“If it’s tourism they want,” he says, “they can just go and be tourists and spend a lot less money.”

To illustrate how his lessons might be applied, Herrly recalls a French newspaper staffer who, according to his boss, had a tendency to be negative and uncooperative. On a Normandy beach, with the difficult employee and his boss looking on, Herrly told the story of two artificial harbors built for the D-Day landings—one by the Americans, one by the British. The U.S. harbor, less well constructed and with an ambivalent officer in charge, was destroyed in a storm; the British harbor survived and went on to be key to the mission’s success. As Herrly described the situation, the remnants of the British harbor were still visible in the water.

Herrly, again, is sensitive to the apparent category error here, but he insists that the principles involved in both instances are similar, if not the stakes. “In the end, problems faced by corporate managers are a lot like those faced by military officers,” he says, adding that his parable about “staff loyalty” seemed to have done the trick. “Months later, the boss told me the situation had greatly improved. I won’t claim total credit, but that’s the kind of impact we like to have.”

DAN CARLINSKY writes on a variety of topics, represents other authors as a literary agent and travels to France as frequently as possible.

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