Revisiting William G. Robertson’s “The Staff Ride” as a Tool to Increase Participant Involvement

As the number of unit deployments draw down, budgets are reduced, and doctrine transitions from full spectrum operations to unified land operations, staff rides offer unit leadership and opportunity to develop subordinate leaders and build team cohesion. However staff rides are only successful when serious effort is taken in the planning and execution. Budget cuts have made the expenditure of funds come under much more scrutiny, which only increases the need to make staff rides worth the expense. A good guide for conducting staff rides is “The Staff Ride” by William G. Robertson. Robertson states in “The Staff Ride”, participant involvement is critical for success. The logic he uses to justify his statement is sound, clear and concise and could help build upon the understanding of all parties. An opportunity therefore exists to make the process of the staff ride transparent to the student. When leaders are transparent in regards to motives and methods, they are free to share their full intent. This is also true in understanding why and how staff rides are conducted. This post will briefly review the potential use of “The Staff Ride” by Robertson as a tool to increase participation during a staff ride.

There are many opportunities to learn from the past. For example, a study of Task Force Smith in Korea gives a full impression of what is meant when former Army Chief of Staff, General Gordon Sullivan, declared “No More Task Force Smiths”. I first learned of about Task Force Smith on a staff ride while stationed in Korea. The case of Task Force Smith can appear as a failure of the Task Force Smith’s leadership, but careful study proves this to be untrue. Studies of the events and circumstances surrounding Task Force Smith reveals a force distracted from training, and ill equipped for combat. An excellent method for which to explore the past is also seen in “The Staff Ride”.

Published as 35 pages in pamphlet form, “The Staff Ride” is easy to read. “The Staff Ride” functions as a planning guide for the execution of the staff ride. I believe “The Staff Ride” should be read by participants in a staff ride for two reasons: the guide provides sound advice for researching and studying in preparation for the staff ride, and it explains in the simplest terms how to conduct a staff ride and why certain actions are recommended. By understanding the how and why, participants can easily anticipate and prepare for opportunities to engage in conversation and maintain situational awareness. Shared understanding added to a clear intent behind a staff ride can aid unit members in moving beyond being mere passive observers and toward becoming active participants.

Highlights for developing shared understanding are the sections that discuss the purpose and objectives, the preliminary study phase, the field study phase, the integrations phase, sources, and secondary benefits. Robertson states the purpose of the staff ride is to develop military leaders. He expands on this in the “purpose and objectives” section by describing how to frame the intent and develop the lens for which to visualize and describe the case study. In the preliminary study section, Robertson explains the outline of the study and preferred depth of study. The preliminary phase also serves as the foundation of the staff ride, building the required knowledge to begin developing understanding. This phase is the first opportunity to introduce “The Staff Ride” which deepens the understanding by making transparent the intent study two levels up; organizer and instructor levels. In the field study phase, according to Robertson, design is critical to ensure maximizing efficient use of time. During the conduct of the field study phase using multiple engagement techniques is critical for maintaining participant involvement. In this phase, if participants understand the intent behind the different techniques they could anticipate them and better prepare which would therefore aid in the maintenance of efficient execution. According to Robertson, follow through is critical in the integration phase through effective post-mortem analysis of conversation and learning that takes place during the preliminary study and field study phases. In regards to the sources, the first concern is a preference for primary sources over the secondary sources — secondary sources are often depiction filtered by interpretation and editing of possible key elements of information. However primary sources are not exempt from fault since the author may be biased by self-interest and perception.

In closing, staff rides serve as a vehicle for additional leader development! You can download the book for free here:

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