Robert M. La Follette School of Public Affairs
Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Appelquist promotes leadership lessons from history


Jeff Appelquist

Cover of book Wisdom Is Not Enough: Reflections on Leadership & Teams

The past holds the secrets of good leadership. Jeff Appelquist believes this tenet so fervently he has built a business on it: Blue Knight History Seminars, LLC, a company that offers leadership and team development training centered on visits to great American battlefields.

Decisions made at the Civil War's Battle of Gettysburg and at the Little Bighorn battle between the U.S. Army and the Lakota and Cheyenne tribes serve as the focal points for the 1986 La Follette grad to teach corporate executives leadership principles. "Participants learn how to make better business decisions by studying the mistakes and victories of the past," Appelquist says.

"We walk the battlefields and discuss key events," Appelquist says. "We consciously apply the historical learning to our own business lives and take away a leadership lesson from each location we visit on the field. We also come away with the tools each participant needs to bring back to their place of work to be better leaders."

Appelquist first conceived of using history to teach leadership when he worked in human resources at the Best Buy Company in Minnesota. When tough economic times caused Best Buy to offer a voluntary buyout of its corporate employees in the late fall of 2008, Appelquist accepted its generous severance package. "I saw it as an opportunity to shift my efforts toward the leadership program I had been developing while at the company," he says.

When he left Best Buy in early 2009, Appelquist devoted himself full-time to building Blue Knight. "I've had a lifelong interest in history, particularly military history," he says. "I don't believe that we can fully understand the current state of the world without understanding the history that got us here. And I am very fortunate that leadership at Best Buy allowed me to develop the program while I was with the company and then continue to pursue my passion after I left."

One of his first tasks was to write a book on leadership that draws on history. He published Sacred Ground: Leadership Lessons from Gettysburg and the Little Bighorn, designing it so that it stands on its own but also serves as the companion volume to the seminars. Sacred Ground won the 2010 Writer's Digest Awards first-place prize for nonfiction and the National Indie Excellence Awards gold medal for military history. Appelquist's second book, Wisdom Is Not Enough: Reflections on Leadership and Teams, was published in early 2011.

Appelquist has added a third seminar, one based on the 1804-1806 expedition led by Meriwether Lewis and William Clark across North America. Appelquist partners with speaker Jack Uldrich, best-selling author of Into the Unknown: Leadership Lessons From Lewis and Clark, which is the companion volume to the newest seminar.

Appelquist had been with Best Buy for more than seven years. Prior to that he worked for the Target Corporation from 1992 to 2001. The former Marine Corps infantry officer and practicing attorney has 20 years experience as a corporate executive, entrepreneur, and small business owner. He earned an undergraduate degree in political science from Carleton College and a dual degree in law and public policy and administration from the University of Wisconsin–Madison.

"I planned on practicing law and going into government or politics at some future point but, as they say, life is what happens to you while you are make other plans," Appelquist says. "I found out I enjoyed business more than law, but the legal and public policy training has been invaluable to me in my career. I would not trade it for anything. I knew that the double degrees would give me numerous choices in my career. And leadership is critically important in government and the legal profession, just as it is in business."

"In all of the seminars, we emphasize the importance of communication, building relationships, and good decision making," Appelquist says. "At the La Follette Institute, I had the chance to hone those skills that I would apply later in my seminars. The public affairs degree provides a broad range of knowledge and huge flexibility in terms of professional options."

— updated March 17, 2011