Leadership Toolbox: Staff Rides

By | September 24, 2019

[September 24, 2019]  On July 3rd, 1990, I was standing at the copse of trees on Cemetery Ridge; the location of the most strategically important battle of the U.S. Civil War.  It was hot and humid in the afternoon as the sun beat down upon the two dozen U.S. Army Captains; just as the sun’s intense heat had done to more than 12,000 Confederates attacking the Union position 127 years earlier.  We were part of a Staff Ride, organized by the U.S. Army Center of Military History.

Staff rides are a leadership tool that will convey the lessons of the past to present-day military leaders.  If done properly, these exercises bring to life, on the very terrain where historic battles took place, examples applicable today.  Leadership, tactics and strategy, communications, use of terrain, and the psychology of men in battle, all comingle to offer valuable opportunities to develop professional leadership.

The original, classic staff ride was made famous by Helmuth von Moltke in the late nineteenth century.  Moltke took his subordinates on riding tours where, in the event of war, significant military events (like battles, deployment of large troop numbers, artillery positions) were likely to occur.  These exercises served two purposes: 1) they allowed officers to better understand the operational significance of certain pieces of terrain and 2) informed a contingency planning effort.

Originally conducted on horseback and occasionally today the same way, it is more likely the staff ride transports officers in the comfort of an air-conditioned bus.  Our CMH historian rolled out his large, canvas map with the top of the map pointing north so that we could appreciate the terrain of the battle.  Maps do not project the magnitude of large terrain features.  Most people are visually oriented; a staff ride helps.

We walked the ground of each of the three days of the battle at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.  Walking up hills and down, fording streams, jumping fences, and seeing what we could see from every possible angle.  I was impressed with the professionalism and knowledge of our historian-educator.  Gettysburg has always held a special place in my family’s history; several relatives having fought there and some buried in the cemetery.

I highly recommend staff rides which are easily adapted to commercial and non-commercial activities that help leaders get a better visualization of their area of interest.  I’ll always have the staff ride in my leadership toolbox.

Author: Douglas R. Satterfield

Hello. I'm Doug and I provide at least one article everyday on some leadership topic. I welcome comments and also guests who would like to write an article. Thanks for reading my blog.

22 thoughts on “Leadership Toolbox: Staff Rides

  1. Tomas Clooney

    Another excellent article from Gen. Satterfield. Well done! While I don’t always agree with you, this article certainly is on target. Any ‘tool’ that a leader can use should be in his ‘rucksack’ for use anytime and place. Thank you.

    1. Crazy Dude

      Yes, the very reason I keep coming back. This article, however, is unusually better because it gives us real tools that is proven effective.

    2. Darryl Sitterly

      I see Gen. Satterfield had the wrong year (2015) as the date but now it’s changed. Rarely do I find errors in his writing.

  2. Martin Shiell

    The whole idea here is to get leaders out of their comfort zone and into the world where their decisions matter. This works!

    1. The Kid 1945

      Correct. And, I see that many organizations fail to use any of these tools. Why? Lack of time is what they will tell you but investment in good leadership is always a good thing that pays off.

  3. Joe Omerrod

    While I never went on a staff ride, I can see its usefulness in the military although harder to apply outside it. I’m one who will be thinking about this. So, thank you all for your comments and examples of how to use the staff ride in other ways.

    1. Wilson Cox

      Yeah! I see what you mean, Joe. I believe you work in the medical area (in a hospital?). Maybe taking some of the ‘administrators’ down into the ER or OR to witness some life-saving efforts. That way they can better understand what it takes to make things work.

  4. Yusaf from Texas

    Excellent article today, Gen. Satterfield. I copied it – along with the others – and gave them to my boss. He and I will be discussing their application to business later this week.

    1. Delf "Jelly" Bryce

      This is a good point, Yusaf. The applicability of these tools to other situations that are not the military is the whole point. I use staff rides in the US govt agency in which I work.

      1. Lynn Pitts

        I haven’t seen you on Gen. Satterfield’s leadership blog in a while. Hope all is well and I can speak for others that we would like to read another article from you. Thanks Jelly for what you are doing to keep us free from the socialists and communists.

  5. Walter H.

    I like the way you have tied in historical events to show us the origins and uses of staff rides. BTW, you don’t have to be in the military to go on a “staff ride.” In commercial business it means you can take some of your junior managers out to the shop floor of your production facility and show them how big problems were solved and production increased (quality and quantity). Application of this idea is enormous.

    1. Eva Easterbrook

      A point not to be overlooked.
      Message to the snowflake college generation, pay attention if you want a better life.
      Or, the snowflakes can just keep on being children.

      1. Drew Dill

        Ha ha. I’m not so sure we can pull them out of their childhood. Once you reach physical adulthood and are a child, you have slipped into the twilight zone to never recover.

  6. Army Captain

    Staff rides are one thing that the US military does well, especially the Army. I’ve been on several and it gives me a bird’s eye view of what really happened plus, and more importantly, it gives me a view from the vantage point of those who fought the battles.

  7. Dennis Mathes

    Good morning everyone, I really like this mini series on leader’s toolbox. It gives us proven ways to make our leadership difficulties that much easier (or should I say better). I am one who would like to see this mini series continue. I cannot think of any additional item but I hope someone does.

    1. JT Patterson

      Hi Dennis. Good comment. I too like several of Gen. Satterfield’s mini-series that point out ‘patterns’ of what great leaders do and occasionally what they don’t do. 😊

    2. Darwin Lippe

      I went back and read all the past ones, so thank you Dennis for pointing this out. I’m new to the website and like what I read.

    3. Kenny Foster

      There are several mini-series that Gen. Satterfield has introduced to us. Just look at his 6th anniversary post the other day. At the bottom, he lists several subjects that are really each a series. This is where we need to be reading. For those that are new to the blog, I recommend highly that you go back and read them.

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