Baron von Steuben's example
Q: In appointing a new Supreme Court Justice to replace John Paul Stevens, President Obama was seeking someone who could provide intellectual and personal leadership of the liberal block. His gamble in nominating Elena Kagan is bringing in someone from outside the 'priesthood' of appeals-court judges. What are the advantages and disadvantages of selecting a leader with non-traditional qualifications?
There are occasions when we look to external, non-traditional sources for leadership of our organizations. Most Americans know the story of the encampment of a rag-tag group of soldiers at Valley Forge in Pennsylvania. George Washington's 11,000-man Continental Army was hungry, ill clothed, and badly housed as it spent December 1777 to June 1778 west of Philadelphia.
To improve the training, discipline, and logistics of the nascent American force, General Washington commissioned Friedrich Wilhelm August Ludolf Gerhard von Steuben for the task. Baron von Steuben was Prussian-born and had served on the military staff of Frederick the Great (and as his aide-de-camp). Though he had only risen to the rank of Captain in the Prussian Army after service in the Seven Years War, Benjamin Franklin introduced von Steuben in a letter to George Washington as a Lieutenant General. This foreigner would quickly become of great value to the new American military.
While his rank was exaggerated, von Steuben had been identified as a "high-potential" officer, one of 13 students selected for special study of military arts with the King of Prussian. At Valley Forge, Baron Von Steuben quickly adjusted the Prussian training methods to meet the realities of non-professional force of colonial troops. He taught the Continental Army military drill and basic tactics that became codified in the infamous "Blue Book"--the Revolutionary War Drill Manual.
Within four weeks of drilling American troops, George Washington was so impressed by the results that he ordered the complete adoption of von Steuben's training system and named von Steuben as the Inspector General. By May 1778, von Steuben was promoted to the rank of Major General and is credited with providing the foundation for the American victory over the British.
It may be the case that useful knowledge, expertise, and experience may not be resident with our organizations and institutions. In such cases, the senior leaders have to recognize and garner talent from outside and non-traditional sources--that is the smart thing to do!
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