One hundred thirty-five years ago, George Armstrong Custer split his exhausted Seventh Cavalry of 660 troopers into several autonomous units, issued vague orders as the units dispersed and charged headlong into well-armed Northern Cheyenne and Lakota Sioux warriors at the Little Big Horn River in Montana.

It was a management disaster, to say the least, for Custer & Co.

"Custer presided over a classical, dysfunctional leadership team," said Jeff Appelquist, author, entrepreneur, former Best Buy corporate manager and onetime Marine infantry lieutenant who has turned Custer's demise into an award-winning book and on-site management seminars.

"Custer was offensive-minded, had good tactical sense and had led a charmed military life," Appelquist said. But the legendary brevet major general "lacked the trust of key lieutenants, did not build a common purpose, was not at all aware of his own faults. He did not communicate or adapt well. Those Indian warriors, about 1,500, turned out in force to protect their families and land. Custer was surrounded and worn down and destroyed."

Appelquist, 53, is the founder of four-year-old Blue Knight History Seminars and the author of "Leadership Lessons from Gettysburg & the Little Bighorn,'' a fascinating 2010 book that examines those two pivotal battles in the context of business management. The book also won the Midwest Book Awards first-place award for business.

Appelquist has a diverse background in the military, law and business. He's turned his passion for learning from history into a growing business that grossed $225,000 in revenue last year from consulting, speeches and on-site seminars and follow-up workshops that cost $2,900 per person.

After graduating from Carleton College in 1980, Appelquist spent three years as a Marine infantry officer, eventually commanding a company of 150 riflemen. It was a great learning experience for a young guy who learned early to surmount his own shortcomings and inexperience by listening, learning, respecting subordinates and "making positive changes accordingly."

'Humble pie'

After service, Appelquist earned graduate degrees in law and public administration, concluding that he would be a state prosecutor. Instead, he took a job as a junior commercial litigator.

"I disliked it," he recalled. "I didn't like fighting over other people's money. But I was thankful for the training and experience."

Appelquist decided to be his own boss and opened a franchised restaurant in 1991 called "Cajun Joe's." It failed in 1992 after the area franchisor went under, costing Appelquist thousands of dollars.

"I paid back everyone I owed," he said. "It was a failure, but I'm really glad it happened. It was a big old dose of humble pie."

Appelquist spent several good years at Target Corp., was second-in-command at a store, and eventually transferred to human resources. He jumped to Best Buy in 2001, worked in HR and developed what would become the Blue Knight seminars as an internal project in 2007 for Best Buy management.

When lean times arrived during the recession of 2008, Appelquist was among the 500 Best Buy headquarters employees who took a buyout. Appelquist used his to finance his book and business.

No hard feelings. Best Buy is among the few dozen organizations that have put managers through the Blue Knight leadership program.

Appelquist is not a "business-is-war'' type of consultant. In fact, he devotes several pages to Chainsaw Al Dunlap, a onetime West Pointer-turned corporate executive who liked war analogies and was best-known for ruining several companies with big cost cuts, massive layoffs and huge big paydays for himself. Dunlap was finally banished from the corporate scene after regulators discovered massive accounting fraud at Sunbeam, where he was CEO in the late 1990s.

Appelquist's business success stories include Oprah Winfrey and Magic Johnson.

"This is not a war thing or a guy thing," said the affable Appelquist. "It's leadership. Leaders come in every class, race and gender. I don't think business is war. But the stakes are high.''

Trip to Gettysburg

Mary Bailey, senior vice president of human resources at Bluestem Brands, wasn't so sure as she read about Gettysburg and completed course material before a several-day trip to the Pennsylvania battlefield with several other managers in May.

"Without exception everyone, men and women, found it really interesting," Bailey said. "It also takes you out of your everyday environment and puts you in the place of history. We are creating our own lessons from Gettysburg. My favorite is 'Longstreet.'"

Gen. James Longstreet was a trusted commander of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee, known for his unvarnished and honest advice. Longstreet advised Lee not to attack the center of the Union Army line on the third and final day of the battle, which ended in disaster for Lee's army and turned the tide of the war on July 3, 1863.

"Longstreet didn't tell Lee what he wanted to hear," said Bailey, a corporate veteran. "Too often executives surround themselves with [like-minded subordinates]. They often need a Longstreet."

Neal St. Anthony • 612-673-7144 • nstanthony@startribune.com