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How Bismarck - Like Liberal Arts - Can Teach Us How To Think

19/05/2013 20:03 BST | Updated 19/07/2013 10:12 BST

Think of Bismarck and you probably think of authority and discipline, hierarchy and order. The name conjures up images of the generously moustached, rather severe looking German leader wearing a "Pickelhaube." Literally meaning "pickle shaped bonnet," this was the helmut donned by the German military in the 19th and early 20th century.

Bismarck is remembered for his 1862 "blood and iron" speech (the great questions of the day will not be solved by mere "speeches and majority decisions," he insisted); and for introducing the beginnings of the modern welfare state (the aristocrat introduced things like pensions, seeking to win support of Germany industry whose own concern was an outflow of workers to America).

We owe something else to Bismarck, though -- or more precisely, to the Prussian Generals of his time. They gave us the "staff ride."

The staff ride is an interactive battlefield scenario with role playing whose original intent was to train staff officers in tactics, strategy, and decision-making. Staff rides have since been used by militaries around the world. But you don't need to be a military officer to appreciate the value of these case studies in leadership. Staff rides are rich and stimulating exercises in not what to think, but rather, how to puzzle through the most truly vexing of problems.

The Legatum Insitute hosted a staff ride recently in a classroom set-up. Participants included two investors, a playwright and university chancellor, a commercial publisher, a Russia expert, a prominent editor, and a journalist-historian. The scenario we worked through was Operation Anaconda, the final and largest battle in the initial invasion of Afghanistan following the Al Qaeda attacks in the U.S. on September 11, 2011.

Equipped with maps, diagrams, org charts and video clips, we were led by two facilitators, Gary Schmitt and Tom Donnelly, both national security and intelligence experts from the American Enterprise Institute in Washington.

The half-day starts with the introduction of the battle plan and cast of characters (role players are ready to go, having studied their briefing books in advance). So far so clear. By the end, though, frictions abound. As the scenario has unfolded, there have been technological mishaps, personality conflicts, differences of opinion about mission, issues with intelligence and "templating the enemy," and problems with the chain of command. We experience, albeit at a safe and comfortable distance, the "fog of war." We see excuses and passing of the buck. There's at least one simple lesson. Says Donnelly: "individuals matter and things did not have to happen as they did."

Operation Anaconda climaxes with the decisions and actions of a small-unit infantry, a 50-meter firefight, and life or death struggle between modestly-armed local forces and U.S. fighters backed by some of the most sophisticated air and space power in the world. "All the modern technology in the world, but people are still people," interjects Donnelly at one point.

Our group has erupted into a contentious debate over trying to rescue trapped and wounded comrades. Part of the dispute has to do with issues of risk and feasibility. But there's more. A text book might tell you priorities are straightforward: mission, men, me, in that clear and simple order. In the heat of the battle, things are different. Judgment and character play a role. There's still more. Aside from personal and moral considerations: What happens when failure to fight to save every last soldier undermines morale and the mission?

In our very concrete situational role playing, Schmitt and Donnelly push us to consider the full range of equities and complete spectrum of view points. This includes the perspective of Afghans who are fighting with foreign forces against Al Qaeda and the Taliban. We are stretched to confront each and every dilemma (the standard dictionary definition of which is, by the way, a situation that requires a choice between two equally unfavorable options).

To me, this is the central appeal of the staff ride. Like liberal arts education, it's mental gymnastics and grappling. It's practice in agility and adaptation. Planning is important. Then life happens. Are we equipped to cope?

Staff rides are also training in resilience and realism. Carl von Clausewitz, the early 19th century philosopher of war, wrote of the "countless minor incidents" in battle, "the kind you can never really foresee" but nonetheless profoundly influence your performance and intended objectives.

Sometimes staff rides are turned foolishly into lectures, with simplistic rules and formulas decreed for future success.

Whether or not the Prussian military was able to resist this unfortunate impulse, Germany society was not. In 1931 Carl Zuckmayer published his play, the "Captain of Koepenick," a hilarious and hilariously depressing real-life story of a shoemaker in Koepenick near Berlin, who buys a second-hand army officer's coat, finding that when he wears the garment his life is transformed. Everyone salutes and mindlessly obeys the "Captain of Koepenick." Two years after Zuckmayer's play was premiered, Hitler came to power.

A genuinely effective staff ride is a highly Socratic endeavor where bright men and women wrestle with exceptionally challenging ideas and real world problems of the most serious kind -- so that they can walk away after to discuss and reflect. Judgment, character and independent thought figure prominently.

"It's about thinking about how you think," says Schmitt.

We need more of this.