Learning Leadership Lessons from History

Many of you are very familiar with the Diamond6 approach in which we use historical events as case studies to learn lessons from history. All the events we consider were “crises” for the leaders involved whether they are battles, emergencies in outer space, or political catastrophes. Each of them demonstrates that during a crisis the pressure of rapidly unfolding events compresses time. Consequently, the importance of the decisions made by leaders (both good or bad) during these trying times are much more stark and can be examined to enhance the learning experience. In each case study we carefully consider the evolution of the events of the “crisis” guided by a historical expert. As we move through the historical discussion we pause to examine what leadership principles and concepts are illustrated. Over time we have developed experiential learning seminars that use the battles of Gettysburg, Antietam, and Bull Run from the American Civil War and walk the actual fields for the maximum educational experience.

Diamond6 has also created seminars using more recent events such as the Apollo 13 crisis and the so-called Saturday Night Massacre from the Watergate crisis. These seminars can be offered anywhere. Still in order to maximize the learning experience we facilitated the Apollo 13 case study aboard the aircraft carrier USS Hornet. It was a recovery ship for the Apollo program and is now a floating museum in San Francisco harbor. We recently conducted the Saturday Night Massacre seminar for the third time at the Nixon Library in Yorba Linda, California.

We continue to expand the historical sites and crises that we believe can be invaluable to learning leadership. We have now developed a seminar using the attack on Pearl Harbor and will be working with the Pearl Harbor Institute in Honolulu to conduct this using various sites on the island of Oahu. Finally, we are finished developing a leadership seminar that will use the Battle of the Alamo as a case study and have conducted this seminar twice over the past few months.

But we have also wanted to be able to offer more of our experiential learning seminars at any location. In December we took a very important first step in that direction. We conducted for the first time what we call Gettysburg on the Road for the leadership team at the Huntington Beach School District in California. Through the use of maps and video we were able to recreate in a classroom in California the experience of actually walking the fields of Gettysburg in order to achieve the same learning experience. It was an amazing success, and we will be doing this again in Baton Rouge, Louisiana later this year.

Still some might say that this continues to beg the question “can you use historical events to learn about leadership?” In a famous essay written in the middle of the 20th century the British historian Liddell Hart argued that the object of history is “truth.” To find out what happened during a particular event and why it happened in order to ascertain causal relationships between it and other events as well as the connection between decisions and actions.

The Center for Creative Leadership used a concept called “Action Learning.” They argue that people learn 70 percent from experiences that they have, 20 percent from interaction with others, and 10 percent from trainingWe believe our experience over the past decade with experiential leadership seminars confirms this analysis. Furthermore, this also serves to underscore the importance of Kolb’s model for experiential learning, which has four steps. First, learning for each of us begins with concrete experiences that serve as opportunities to gather new “data.” Second, this is followed by reflective observation and “digestion” of the experience. Third, new knowledge for the student is then created by abstract conceptualization that takes into account not only the immediate event but also other experiences from their respective careers. Finally, the student must conduct active experimentation or “testing” of the new knowledge. This is why we continue to strongly recommend a follow-up discussion roughly 90 days after any experiential leadership seminar in order to discuss whether or not participants have been successful in applying what they have learned.

But we must admit that this is in many ways not a new approach. The Greek historian Polybius observed, “There are two roads to the reformation of mankind – one through misfortunes of their own, the other through the misfortunes of others; the former is the most unmistakable, the latter the less painful…the knowledge gained from the study of history is the best of all education for practical life.”

With this sound ancient advice Diamond6 will continue to expand its experiential leadership seminar offerings to the widest audience possible.