Fort Detrick leaders seek lessons from Harpers Ferry

Ft. Detrick Leaders Get Lessons from Harpers Ferry- Civil War Medicine Museum

Photo by Travis Pratt
George Wunderlich, director of the National Museum of Civil War Medicine, talks to Col. Judith D. Robinson on Wednesday morning in Harpers Ferry while leading a group of Fort Detrick workers on a leadership training outing.

By Megan Eckstein, Frederick News Post, March 24, 2011

Step back in time 150 years, and Harpers Ferry was the equivalent of today’s Fort Detrick. Instead of housing pivotal biodefense assets, it housed a major federal arsenal. The town centered on government workers and the contractors and ancillary businesses that followed. The town was strategically located between two major transportation routes — the Shenandoah and Potomac rivers. Fort Detrick, by comparison, is between I-270 and I-70.

But a series of historic decisions caused Harpers Ferry to die out as a town and as a relevant government campus. Facing a wave of changes, Fort Detrick leaders toured the town Wednesday to learn from its mistakes.

A group of about 25 upper and middle managers from all of the Army garrison’s directorates spent the day with George Wunderlich, executive director of the National Museum of Civil War Medicine, to discuss Civil War lessons that might be applied to their own leadership and communication styles. They learned about John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry and how a lack of vision and poor management led to his downfall — and to the beginning of the town’s demise.

The group toured the town’s 19th-century shops, as well as the John Brown Museum, where Brown was captured.

On the minds of many participating in the four-part leadership training are the upcoming changes at Fort Detrick:

Garrison commander Col. Judith Robinson turns over control of the post in July; Fort Detrick’s Forest Glen Annex is expanding because of Department of Defense Base Realignment and Closure initiatives; and the garrison will move from the Medical Command to Installation Management Command, meaning a new chain of command and a new way of doing things.

“You can’t be afraid to be a change agent, and you can’t be afraid of change,” Robinson told the group. “You may have to shape that change, you may have to tell the emperor he has no clothes on, but we all need to be those agents for change.”

In an earlier training session, the group discussed Maj. Jonathan Letterman, a local Civil War hero who revolutionized battlefield medicine. Robinson said it was important for her managers to learn about the major and find his qualities in themselves.

“He was a mid-grade officer, and he had lots of people who outranked him by a great deal, and yet he was the one who was really able to be the impetus for making these dramatic and long-lasting changes,” she said after the training session.

“So it was to help all the folks who came to see they, too, could be a Letterman in a small way, a big way, whatever, but that we each have that inside us.”

The participants have already started tossing out ideas for how to put their new tools to use.

Larry Potter, director of public works, said the training drove home his belief that one must know where one comes from to avoid repeating mistakes, and that one must know how to move forward.

Patrick McKinney, safety and occupational health specialist, said he thought the communication lessons could help to improve community meetings about issues such as risk assessment studies for new laboratories and environmental cleanup efforts.

“Through these classes we get a better idea of seeing what their points are, what their concerns are, and not so much the excitement or the venom,” he said.

McKinney, who has attended training sessions like this before, said this one emphasized the importance of being open-minded. “You can’t just be so focused on the mission that you’re running with blinders on,” he said. “You’ve got to be receptive. A conversation takes two.”

Robinson, who decided to look into leadership training for her civilian staff more than two years ago, said it’s more important than ever because so many changes are happening at once.

“It’s all change and managing change and accepting change,” she said. “Going through and taking the time to do these things gives the folks the time to step back, think about it and put it in the context of all the things swirling around them and say, ‘Hey, wait a minute, stuff’s always swirled, and it’s OK. We’re going to make it through, too.’”

Wunderlich said he was pleased the Fort Detrick group understood the lessons so quickly. He said he had every confidence they would have a smooth transition.

“Hopefully we’ve been able to provide them with some rather unique tools, rather unique ways of thinking, to allow them to succeed even better, even faster, with less friction,” he said. “They plotted their course, they’ve come to conclusions, they’ve taken all this in, and now it’s all about them. … I’m confident that they’re going to go forward and do things that they didn’t even know they could do.”

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