Creating Discipline from Chaos

Friedrich von Steuben was destined to have a military career. He was born in a fortress town in Germany. His father was an officer in the Prussian army and Friedrich was a volunteer in the military when he was 14. Friedrich was involved in the Seven Years’ War between Britain and France.

When the war was over, Friedrich was unemployed, but a meeting with Benjamin Franklin changed his career direction and the future of the United States.  This meeting eventually led to Friedrich coming to America to support America’s war against England.

George Washington appointed Friedrich to be his Inspector General. What he found was appalling. Sanitary conditions were terrible. There was no organization to camps. One of the first things he did was to place the camp’s kitchen and latrines on opposite sides of the camp. There was no record of supplies, and they were routinely being stolen. Weapons and ammunition would often turn up missing.

Friedrich also realized the soldiers were not trained. Friedrich introduced the concept of progressive training where soldiers were trained in stages. He wrote a book for training soldiers which remained in use for over 60 years.

Eventually, Friedrich became Washington’s Chief of Staff. His innovations were largely the reason that the American rag-tag Army was able to defeat the British. Without Friedrich, it’s likely that the American Army would have continued to be undisciplined and it would be years before America gained its freedom.

Historians generally acknowledge that Friedrich von Steuben was a gay man. It’s ironic that the American military has been largely shaped by someone whose sexual identity would have prevented him from serving our national military until recent years.

Innovations have often been rejected based on such factors as race, gender, and sexual identity. Just imagine what might have happened if Steuben’s military organizational innovations had been rejected. Innovations should be valued for the positive changes they promise, not the biology of the innovator. Hidden heroes should no longer fear coming out of the shadow.

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“If you look at history, innovation doesn’t come from just giving people incentives; it comes from creating environments where their ideas can connect.”– Steven Johnson (Science author)

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