August 2014

Transforming a Broken Organization: George Washington and the Baron de Steuben at Valley Forge

The Valley Forge Leadership Experience brings executives to this national landmark to study Washington's leadership through one of the most critical chapters of the War for Independence. The history is a vehicle through which participants learn valuable lessons that will help them better lead their modern organizations.

In summer The Valley Forge National Historical Park is an emerald oasis at the edge of exurban Philadelphia, and it's a little hard to conjure that famous winter of 1777-78, when the Continental Army suffered here after nearly a year of defeats that included losing the nearby rebel capital.

Private Joseph Martin of Connecticut was barefoot when he arrived in camp in December, 1777. He made himself a pair of moccasins out of rough cowhide, but could not wear them because the hard leather cut his legs. He made do with discarded linen shirts wrapped around his feet. Over a period of two days all he had to eat was a small pumpkin that he roasted on a flat rock. Called to hear a proclamation from Congress celebrating the Americans' October victory at Saratoga, New York, Martin and his comrades later trudged back to their camp, as he wrote, to dine on "leg of Nothing and no turnips."

By January the men—who had not been paid in six months—were eating flat cakes made from flour and water, and going days at a time without meat, vegetables or vinegar (essential to ward off scurvy). That same month the horses started dying from lack of forage. On February 7, 1778, a blizzard buried the countryside in several feet of snow. Without horses, it was impossible to transport firewood, and men were stranded in their freezing cabins. After the storm Washington made his way over the ice-crusted roads to meet a Congressional committee that was staying a few miles away. Unless something was done immediately to bring relief to his troops, he told the delegates, "This army must dissolve."

Even as he struggled with an almost non-existent supply system, Washington was under attack by some members of Congress and even some of the Army's senior commanders over a string of battlefield fiascos. By the end of 1776 the Continentals had been defeated on Long Island and Brooklyn, then pushed out of New York and New Jersey. Washington's brilliant Christmas attack at Trenton and his follow-up victory at Princeton saved the Revolution and bought him some time, but those successes were followed, in 1777, by major defeats in the Philadelphia Campaign. The Continental Army Washington brought to Valley Forge was reeling on all fronts.

With little help from an impoverished and mostly powerless Congress, Washington began a radical transformation of the army using his wits and will. To address his supply problems, Washington chose one of his best combat commanders, Nathanael Greene of Rhode Island. (Greene's work deserves its own treatment as a model for transformation.) For the professional discipline his Continentals needed to stand up to the British on the battlefield, Washington turned to a recent immigrant, the Baron Friedrich Wilhelm de Steuben.

Steuben, formerly an officer in the Prussian army, arrived at Valley Forge in February 1778 and volunteered to serve the rebel cause without pay or military rank until he could prove his worth. Since the Prussian Army (not the British) was the most respected force in Europe and since Steuben had served as an aide-de-camp to Frederick the Great, the architect of that army, Washington was willing to see what the stout, middle-aged Baron might accomplish.

Steuben, who did not speak English and had been in America for just three months, did two things immediately on arriving at Valley Forge. First, he got to know scores of the Continental Army's senior officers, the men whose support he would need to make any transformation work. His natural demeanor helped: even through interpreters, it became obvious that Steuben was an intelligent and engaging man, a professional soldier willing to share his expertise with the oft-beaten rebels.

Next Steuben made a thorough inspection of the army. Because he had served in the ranks (a requirement for officers-in-training in the Prussian army) he could connect with the private soldiers huddled in their cabins. It became clear very quickly that he was interested in facts; he needed an accurate picture of the army, and the best place to get that was from the men who constituted the largest part of the organization. The report he gave Washington was bleak and, as would become Steuben's trademark, straightforward. He came from a culture that valued efficiency and effectiveness; sugarcoating the truth would help no one. As a good staff officer, Steuben also came with a proposed solution.

He would teach the soldiers to march.

Nowadays we associate marching with parades and half-time bands, but in the eighteenth and nineteenth century, drill (as it is properly called) was how a commander got his combat power in the right place at the right time. Soldiers who could arrive on the battlefield quickly and deploy into a tight firing formation could overwhelm an enemy; disciplined troops who held their position under fire or even against a bayonet charge could win. It was, for these Continentals, the most basic skill, the equivalent of today's worker knowing how to field a customer request, handle a spreadsheet, drive a forklift. No drill, no success.

"Culture" is one of those words that pop up in nearly every discussion of organizational performance. Culture is the sum total of everything we learn, from all sources, that tells us how we're supposed to act.

Steuben gathered a model company of one hundred soldiers. His plan was to teach these men, as well as some assistants, and cascade the learning through the entire army using them as emissaries. On March 19, 1778, Steuben rose at three in the morning to spend a bit more time memorizing the English words and phrases needed to teach the soldiers the most basic elements, beginning with how to stand: feet together at the heels, head up, eyes front, arms along the sides, hands cupped, thumbs forward and down. It is from this position (which still constitutes the first drill lesson in modern militaries) that the soldier does everything else.

As Steuben expected, a crowd gathered, officers and soldiers come to see what this Prussian visitor was up to. The Americans were astonished; here was a senior leader who had served under Frederick the Great teaching private soldiers, even using his hands to gently straighten shoulders, tilt a chin, direct eyes. And this was the genius of the Baron's plan for transforming the Continental Army. One of the main problems he had identified was that American officers did not feel a sense of responsibility for their men. In this the rebel leaders were merely aping the British Army, where officers led in battle but otherwise ignored their soldiers. This attitude, as Steuben saw it, was why America's soldiers were poorly clothed, why their weapons were rusty and badly maintained, why the men had so much trouble finding food: their leaders were not accountable. In the Prussian Army (and the modern US Army, for that matter) taking care of soldiers is one of a leader's two key responsibilities, the other being mission accomplishment. Steuben saw that the culture of the Continental Army had to change, and he started by setting an example of how officers were to act and what work they were to do.

In a remarkably short period, Steuben's "Prussian system," as some called it, had the army moving in impressive and disciplined formations. The Continental officers, who had seen the British use these same battlefield tactics to great effect, were surprised that their own soldiers were so capable.

Washington ordered a grand review for May 6, 1778, to celebrate America's new alliance with France. The rejuvenated army put on an impressive display: the men moved like soldiers, with a new sense of pride in themselves, their uniforms, equipment and comrades. They felt like soldiers, and their officers were becoming leaders. As he looked out over the field, Washington must have felt his hopes rekindled. This was the beginning of a new army, a force that, with the long-awaited help of the powerful French King, might just defeat the British.

Steuben not only taught soldiers face-to-face; the Baron even wrote out instructions for officers, describing their principal duties. For the captain, who commanded and worked closely with the men, Steuben wrote:

"A captain cannot be too careful of the company the state has committed to his care. ... His first object should be, to gain the love of his men, by treating them with all possible kindness and humanity . . . He should know every man of his company by name and character. He should often visit those who are sick, speak tenderly to them, see that the public provision, whether of medicine or diet, is duly administered and procure besides such comforts and conveniences as are in his power. The attachment that arises from this kind of attention to the sick and wounded, is almost inconceivable."

Today Steuben's statue looks over the Grand Parade, a rolling meadow at the center of the vast encampment and now of Valley Forge National Historical Park. It was here, on those chilly March days in 1778, that Steuben began the transformation that would help the Continentals hold their own against the British and, eventually, prevail in the War for Independence. The bronze Baron is scowling, wrapped in a tremendous cloak, sword on his left hip, right foot forward. He doesn't look like a guy who would encourage officers to love their men; but love them he did, and the results were undeniable.

Modern business leaders probably don't use the word "love" often when planning a transformation. But the leaders of organizations that weather change and thrive on the other side do share uniquely human characteristics that don't fit on a spreadsheet: compassion, respect, concern. These are the tools of success as much as any process or metric.

Among the influencers of culture are behaviors that become accepted—or just ignored—over time, things that we reward, successes we celebrate, and norms among peer groups. Leaders can influence some of these aspects of organizational life, and clever leaders look for opportunities to shape the culture, using formal tools such as the organization's values, purpose and mission; and less formal but equally important tools such as the stories they share and the things we reward.

Ed Ruggero is the co-author of The Leader's Compass: A Personal Leadership Philosophy Is Your Foundation For Success. He is also the creator of the Gettysburg Leadership Experience.