Lessons from Five Great Battles, Applied to Business

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In the 80′s, around the time the movie, “Wall Street” came out, everyone in the business world were touting the wisdom in the classical work from antiquity on military strategy, “The Art of War” by Sun Tzu. After the movies release, the book was being read by a vast majority of business leaders, not least the mavericks of Wall Street. Readers and advocates figured, that, since business was about tactics and strategy, surely business was a ‘war’ and reading about how to wage war gave one a better accomplishment at business affairs.

Now I would be one of the first to recommend Sun Tzu. But not just for business reading. I think the work is useful for many, and for varied applications. But for Sun Tzu, while dictating many maxims, his works don’t really provide any real world practical examples of how battles actually shape strategy, and the movie Wall Street didn’t really give practical examples about how those principles apply to the business world.

So here are five battles where we assess the outcomes, which have real world business applications, and give practical, and provide real world parallels for business. You might say that these are ‘battle-tested’.

1. The Battle of Gaugamela
In 331BCE, Alexander the Great’s Macedonian army amassed against the might of the Persians, united under Darius III. After, as was customary at the time, a series of negotiations hoping to avoid bloodshed, the two sides faced off at Tel Gomel, a site not far from modern day Mosul in Iraq. Several events and battles led up to this point. This battle was to shape the fate of the Persian Empire, and the outcomes of much of the history of the Central Core.

Alexander was outnumbered 3:1 and Darius also had the benefit of flexibility in the kinds of forces employed on the battlefield, having archers, slingmen, chariots, cavalry and various kinds of infantry at his disposal, including Greek hoplite mercenaries. However, the Persian army was a centralized unit, taking orders from the center of the line, commanded by the king, Darius himself and with all the ego that went with it. Alexander opening the engagement with an echelon formation, with a yielding left flank. Darius could not resist the flat, open ground, excellent for chariots, presented on the left and launched his main attack against Alexander’s yielding flank, which was under the command of Alexander’s general Parmenio. Alexander kept a force engaged in the center to prevent Darius from splitting his lines then began a flanking maneuver to the right using the cavalry under its commander, Aretas. This drew out Darius’ right-side cavalry, creating a gap in the center of Darius’ main line. The Macedonians, after Darius attacked the center of Alexander’s formation, exploited this by doubling back into the gap.

Business Lesson: I believe there are two fundamental lessons from this battle of antiquity. One: that superior tactics effect your next move, winning despite overwhelming odds, and by looking at how you can turn a competitors strengths and dominance into their greatest liability.

Secondly: allow your charges to use their initiative after handing them sufficient delegated power to get the job done. In other words, tactical ability is only as good as the organizations ability to execute. Perhaps one of Alexander’s greatest triumphs was that he mobilized well trained and experienced units under the command of veteran generals. His decentralized mentality, good unit cohesion and organization, meant he was able to exploit the reverse in his enemy.

Looking at Microsofts acquisition of Skype as a good example of this: a company with a good product, creates a critical mass of customers, before being able to dictate the acquisition price to the giant, Microsoft. As for organization, FedEx’s use of field-feedback, allows for greater initiative. Whole Foods stores ability to stock items outside of central distribution, allows it to keep up with regional customer demand.

2. The Battle of Cannae
After Carthaginian leader, Hannibal, marched his men over the alps into the boot of Italy, handing defeat several times along the way to a retreating Roman Army, he sought to control the center of Roman power itself: the countryside. After losing two other battles, at Trebia and Trasimene (218-219 BCE), the Roman army under the consuls, Gaius Varro and Lucius Paullus, engaged Hannibal in 216 BCE.

Despite that the Roman army was twice the size of the exhausted Carthaginians, according to the Roman historian Polybius, the Romans opened the engagement with the standard rows and maniples which shaped the Roman Legion’s battle tactics. Hannibal had considerable flexibility amongst his troops, with allied Italian states, Celtic horsemen, Spanish skermishers and archers, as well as elephants, and heavy infantry from the Carthaginian Empire.

The Romans were routed! Hannibal was able to completely outflank and encircle the Roman army and they were annihilated. However, while Rome wasn’t able to recover immediately from this major defeat at the hands of the Carthaginians, Hannibal failed to win sufficient Italian allies. Hannibal thought that many more provinces would join him against Rome, and while Philip V of Macedon pledged his support, he could not march into Rome, even at the urging of his Numidian cavalry commander, Maharbal who correctly asserted to seize the opportunity to make Romes defeat total, “Of a truth the gods have not bestowed all things upon the same person. You know how to conquer, Hannibal; but you do not know how to make use of your victory”. Hannibal however disagreed whether he didn’t feel he could use the psychological victory over the Roman allies at Cannae and deemed it pointless, or whether he wrongly asserted that his force wasn’t strong enough to enter the Roman capital. Hannibal sent delegations to the Romans seeking settlement, but Rome was able to exploit Hannibals misdirection. Rome raised another army which collectively was larger than the Carthaginians, and with Hannibals dwindling support amongst defected Italian allies, retreated. His failure to exploit his win, failed in its strategic objectives to sack and take Rome.

Business lesson: Losing sight of the big picture; forgetting the larger strategic objective; and failure to win-over stake-holders. Sometimes winning the battle does not always give you strategic victory, or as once was coined by the ‘Desert Fox’, Erwin Rommel, “Don’t fight a battle if you don’t gain anything by winning”. Hannibal lost sight of his strategic objectives by not fostering the Italian countryside. I’ve seen client businesses experience great gains in the market, only to not take strategic advantage of the market landscape, and are unable to hold their ground against the competition arrayed against them.

3. The Battle of Midway
About 6 months after Japan’s raid at Pearl Harbor, Japan sought to finish the task it had originally set for itself at Pearl – the destruction of America’s ability to project power: sinking the aircraft carriers of the US Pacific Fleet.

The Imperial Japanese Navy taskgroup, with four aircraft carriers, under the command of Admirals Nagumo and Yamamoto was intercepted in early June 1942 heading for the Midway islands after the US fleet was alerted to their presence by favorable intelligence analysis.

The Japanese were the first to strike the airfield on Midway, but US aircraft had spotted the Japanese carrier fleet and launched four attack waves, eventually sinking all four Japanese carriers, for only the loss of the abandoned USS Yorktown. The remainder of the Japanese fleet retreated to the safety of Japanese waters.

However, largely due to the efforts of allied codebreakers, the Japanese defeat at Midway, created a gap in Japan’s shipbuilding, and pilot training programs were unable to keep pace in replacing their losses, while the U.S. steadily increased its output in both areas. The Japanese were never able to recover.

Business lesson: Intelligence is both vital and valuable, in understanding customers, market dynamics, and your competition. Underestimating a market or not taking sight of gaps in offering, differentiation, customer behavior or the competition, can lead to disaster, just like on the battlefield. Market research is essential!

4. The Battle of Borodino
In the spring of 1812, Napoleon assembled his ‘La Grande Armée’ in eastern Poland – around 700,000 men. Personally leading the central force, numbering around 286,000 men, Napoleon sought to engage and defeat Count Michael Barclay de Tolly’s main Russian army. Napoleon’s Russian Campaign began in June 1812, when the French penetrated Russian territory, heading towards Moscow. At the beginning, the Russians had avoided a direct encounter with the French as they pulled back, following a scorched earth policy. However, the Russian commander finally decided to set up a defensive line at Borodino, and the Battle of Borodino began on the early morning of September 7, with a French cavalry attack on the Russian lines. Both French and Russian fought ferociously. Having withstood several waves of French cavalry charge, the Russian left wing began to collapse as Russian General, Mikhail Kutuzov ordered a retreat.

The fighting at Borodino cost Napoleon around 30,000-35,000 casualties, while the Russians suffered around 39,000-45,000. With the Russians retreating in two columns towards Semolino, Napoleon was free to advance and capture Moscow on September 14. Entering the city, he expected the tsar to offer his surrender. This was not forthcoming and Kutuzov’s army remained in the field. Possessing an empty city and lacking supplies, Napoleon was forced to begin his long and costly retreat west that October. Returning to friendly soil with around 23,000 men, Napoleon’s massive army had effectively been destroyed in the course of the campaign. The French army never fully recovered from the losses suffered in Russia.

Business lesson: Lack of a contingency plan; not enough risk analysis done; overconfidence and ignoring valued business principles.

Don’t become over-confident, especially after many successes, and never attempt an unpopular endeavor in isolation. Always remember the basic project management principles, and make your planning and risk analysis commensurate with the size of your market. Finally, stop and think, and assess your market by listening to others: find out about alternatives.

I once had a potential client (they decided it was too expensive to take a consultants advice) that shipped perishable product from New Zealand and it was caught at the Port of Long Beach for several days, causing $140,000 in loss, due to poor and incomplete paperwork, a failure on the part of the company to work up an alternate plan and believing that no additional follow-up was necessary with the receiver.

5. The Battle of El Alemein
The Battle of El Alamein, fought in the deserts of North Africa in 1942, is seen as one of the decisive victories of World War Two. The Battle of El Alamein was primarily fought between two of the outstanding commanders of World War Two: Bernard Montgomery and Erwin Rommel. Due to Rommels victories in the North African desert, the Allies believed him and his army to be invincible.

Montgomery’s great assets were his meticulous planning and his immense self-confidence. His analysis of the situation at Alamein was perfect. Montgomery pulled all of the troops up forward, to a strong defensive position offered by a ridge south-east of El Alamein: a natural bottle-neck between the Qattara Depression — which tanks could not cross — and the sea. Rommel would have to pass through this gap if he was to drive east towards Egypt, the Suez Canal and the oilfields of the Middle East. His plan was to let Rommel attack Alam El Halfa while building up his forces for a strong counter-attack using a strong Commonwealth contingent and the new American Sherman tank. Rommel attacked on October 23 and again the following day but could make no headway, and withdrew, mainly due to heavy tank losses suffered by the beleaguered German and Italian armies, lack of sufficient fuel supplies and insufficient air cover.

The Allied victory at El Alamein lead to the retreat of the Afrika Korps and the German surrender in North Africa in May 1943.

Business lesson: ‘Changing tempo’ is one of the most challenging problems that a leader of any organisation can face. Successful organisations start off with enthusiasm, driven by the vision of the founders and the early management teams. Sadly this often fades over successive generations of management, and teams begin to see only problems, not solutions. People stop believing that they can succeed.

Defeatism in an organisation can be contagious: a team that does not believe that they can succeed never will. While challenging, transforming tempo and mood in an organization is essential. Teams that have faith in clear, well-presented strategies in which they are confident, will succeed unconditionally.

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