12 Most Crucial Business Lessons Learned from Battle
War has an unbridled, chaotic context, often allowing us to view the power of natural forces in their pure, unencumbered form. Military analogies, then, become instructive – and help illustrate abstract business concepts in a meaningful way.
Here are my 12 most favorite military engagements, and business lessons learned from them…
1. People trump technology: D-Day Air War (1944)
In preparation for the invasion of Europe, the Allies set out to clear the skies of German aircraft. Initially, they bombed the aircraft factories only to find the Germans could rebuild the airplanes in a relatively short time. The Allies didn’t succeed until they went after the German planes… containing pilots. The Germans soon found they couldn’t replace pilots as fast they could replace aircraft. LESSON: People are more valuable than technology.
2. Integration is key: Cannae (216 B.C.)
Hannibal and his ragtag force virtually obliterated a powerful Roman army twice its size by integrating the use of cavalry with infantry. LESSON: It’s not how well you use a tool or sell a product; it’s how well you use a tool in concert with your other tools and/or how well you sell a product in concert with other products in your line. Integrate the resources available to you; integration is a force of Nature.
3. Stubbornness kills: trench warfare: France (1915)
Many lives were lost because generals kept sending huge numbers of men up against entrenched machine guns. They kept tweaking and tweaking to no avail; the machine guns always won. LESSON: Don’t expect to turn a bad idea into a great one by tweaking it, but also don’t be surprised if people repeat their mistakes.
4. Beware overconfidence: Gettysburg (1863)
The Confederates believed they could not lose, so exhausted their forces with attack after attack. Ultimately, and without making a single attack on the Confederates, the Federals won this battle and turned the tide of the American Civil War. LESSON: Undisciplined aggressiveness can waste time, money and resources.
5. Always gather intelligence: Midway (1942)
By learning one crucial bit of information – where the Japanese would attack – an inferior American fleet mortally wounded the Japanese navy (the movie Midway does an excellent job of capturing this critical intelligence gathering effort). LESSON: One piece of intelligence can dramatically alter your prospects; you just don’t know which one it will be.
6. You can’t coach speed: Spanish Armada (1588)
In the days of sea battles, floating fortresses collided and then launched their soldiers to take control of opposing ships. The English built faster ships armed with long-range guns, thus never allowing the Spanish Armada to get close… and, using speed and agility, ultimately sunk the much larger Armada. LESSON: Speed compensates for many deficiencies.
7. Innovation is a game changer: France (1940)
Germany showed the full potential of Blitzkrieg (Lightning War) by conquering France in less than a month. However, the original ideas for such warfare came from two Brits, J.F.C. Fuller and Liddell Hart. Before the Germans utilized the theories behind Lightning War… the British military command had dismissed their ideas, declaring them without merit. LESSON: A game changing idea could be lying just in front of you; open your mind.
8. Be flexible and nimble: Pydna (168 B.C.)
When the two most powerful armies in Western Civilization met, the Roman cohorts devastated the Macedonian phalanx with smaller, more nimble units rather than a single, inflexible large mass of soldiers. LESSON: Flexibility matters; organize around the smallest unit possible to get the job done.
9. Don’t make haste: Persian Gulf War (1991)
Rather than make a direct – and predicable – assault, Allied ground forces conquered Saddam Hussein’s army in three days by taking a route nearly a thousand miles farther. LESSON: Don’t jump to conclusions or take the easy way; fully vet your options.
10. Set expectations of those who judge: Tet Offensive (1968)
By every measure, the United States and South Vietnamese defeated the North Vietnamese and Vietcong. However, since the American public did not expect such an attack… the battle was a major public relations loss. LESSON: Expectations matter; ensure you set them appropriately.
11. Motivation is king: American Revolution (1781)
Motivated by the collective thought of independence and freedom – and while defending their homes and families – a small, poorly armed and disorganized force defeated the most powerful army in the world. LESSON: A group of people motivated to accomplish a common goal can accomplish the impossible.
12. Psychology is half the battle: Mongolian Invasions (1225)
A barbaric, nomadic and technologically backward force created one of the largest empires in history. The first to use psychological warfare on such a grand scale, the Mongolians instilled loyalty in supporters… and fear in its enemies. LESSON: It’s easy to get swallowed up by business statistics and strategies, but leadership is mainly a psychological event.
We live in a regulated world in which rules often hide the true power of natural forces. For instance, archaic rules often restrict flexibility – allowing us to view flexibility as a bad thing; as though we might potentially violate standards.
In this way, we often come to mistake these rules for natural forces, and thus sentence ourselves to thinking inside the boxes created by others. Seeing the interrelationship among different bodies of knowledge is a path to creativity, innovation, freedom and growth. War’s chaotic nature allows us to distinguish the naturally powerful forces from the ones that are merely figments of our imagination enforced by rules.
Featured image courtesy of Stephen Poff licensed via creative commons.