Mar 22 2016
What I Learned About Business from Military Strategy
During my last semester of business school, I finally decided to venture outside Sage Hall to experience some of Cornell’s world-class offerings. These classes have greatly complemented my business education, sometimes in unexpected ways. For example, I’m taking a physical education course, Squash, which has been a casual way to get to know some of my fellow Cornellians. I’m also taking a graduate-level course on renewable energy systems offered by the School of Mechanical & Aerospace Engineering. It’s helped me to think about my career in clean technology from a totally different and, I believe, valuable perspective.
Having always been a history enthusiast, I jumped at the opportunity to take a course on military history. The course is offered by the History Department (one of the top ten programs in the nation) and taught by department chair Barry Strauss. While it’s over-simplistic to equate warfare to business, military history can be instructive on such relevant subjects as leadership, organizational behavior, strategy, and human nature.
Below are three lessons learned from prominent military writers in history: Carl von Clausewitz, Sun Tzu, and Thucydides:
Carl von Clausewitz – Levels of War
The Prussian General Carl von Clausewitz is the father of Western modern strategic study. In his book, On War, he described three levels of war that establish a hierarchical understanding of military strategy. The highest level is known simply as strategy and is concerned with a state’s interest and means to achieve them. The second level, operations, is concerned with applying an army’s resources to plan and conduct campaigns. The third level, tactics, is concerned with the conduct of battle (i.e., the application of concentrated force and offensive action to gain objectives). The United States’ approach to WWII provides an example of multi-level strategy in action. First, war was declared on both Japan and Germany. Next, the allies jointly decided to focus on reducing Germany first and Japan second. Eisenhower was tasked with Operation Overlord, the massive invasion of Europe via Normandy. Officers then led troops into countless battles and skirmishes that eventually drove the enemy from Normandy.
The idea of hierarchical strategy is common in business as well. At the highest level, a company has a mission and vision. These will then be translated into business unit and functional strategies ending finally at individual employee tasks. Clausewitz illustrates that all levels of strategy must be aligned, which necessarily requires a top-down approach. Perhaps not obvious at first, an optimal top-down approach facilitates empowerment among subordinates through the delegation of decision-making.
Sun Tzu – Self-awareness
“He who knows the enemy and himself
Will never in a hundred battles be at risk;”
Sun Tzu, the Chinese general and philosopher, wrote one of the most enduring pieces in history on military strategy, The Art of Warfare. Over 2,500 years after it was written, it remains a favorite in the military, business, and even sports. Sun Tzu consistently emphasizes the importance of planning and intelligence in warfare. The quote above indicates that, in Sun Tzu’s mind, the battle is often determined before it begins based on a general’s preparation and self-awareness.
A common characteristic among the best leaders I’ve known is a high level of self-awareness. Awareness of one’s strengths and, perhaps more importantly, one’s weaknesses is critical, so that one may play to their strengths while managing their weaknesses. Left without this knowledge, a leader can do little else than imitate other leaders (or leadership styles) he or she admires. This is problematic, because, no matter how much one might study other leaders (or leadership styles), he or she can’t hope to predetermine a course of action for every unique situation. An imitative leader without self-awareness in this situation is now deprived of both a “textbook” leadership approach as well as an authentic approach that comes from within. I believe that this lack of self-awareness is why many leaders seem unable to progress beyond a certain level in their leadership journey.
Thucydides – Human Nature
This is more of a fun one. Thucydides was an Athenian general who wrote a detailed account of the Peloponnesian War. Thucydides’ account of political struggle in Athens is strangely reminiscent of our own day:
“[The two political parties] stopped at nothing in their struggles for ascendancy, […] making the party caprice of the moment their only standard […] Thus religion was in honor with neither party; but the use of fair phrases to arrive at guilty ends was in high reputation. Meanwhile the moderate part of the citizens perished between the two, either for not joining the quarrel, or because envy would not suffer them to escape.”
It’s either comforting or horrifying to know that populism and demagoguery are as much a part of politics today as they were 2,500 years ago! Students of history can use this to their benefit however, by guarding themselves and others against the same mistakes those before us have made.
In the end, Clausewitz, Sun Tzu, and Thucydides occupy the same bookshelf in my home as Porter, Covey, and Christensen. I’d recommend that all MBA students take time off from their DCFs, LBOs, and other favorite business acronyms to learn about something completely different—it just might make them a better businessperson.