Article: A Leader's Combat Zone: Lessons from the battlefield

Learning & Development

A Leader's Combat Zone: Lessons from the battlefield

In the life-or-death quest for strategic change, the battlefield has much to teach businesses today

Strong vision and belief are essential, but a leader who blocks constructive criticism and ignores the input of his team is doomed


Business in the globalized economy is a civilized version of war. Companies, not countries, are battlefield rivals and we have entered the era of total competition. There is a battle-ready competitor somewhere, who is busy thinking how to beat you. The ancient Chinese Strategist Sun Tzu who wrote ‘The Art of War’ said “Rules of the war never change only weapons change”. Many methods used in sales campaigns, marketing strategies and competitive tactics, are in fact based on military analogies. So, what lessons can business leaders today learn from the history of warfare?

World War I, II, & Defeat of Hitler

The scale of the slaughter of soldiers in World War I was appalling. After the great successes in the early part of the war, Hitler was convinced that he was a military genius and the German race could overcome any obstacle. When he attacked Russia in the summer of 1941, he was so confident of victory that there were no plans for a winter campaign; no winter coats for the soldiers and no winter oil for the tanks. He ignored the advice of his Generals and pushed his forces down towards Stalingrad and then refused to allow them to withdraw or regroup when the communication lines became overextended. His arrogance and overconfidence built a barrier to criticism and thus he never used the full talent of his team. Eventually, Germany was overwhelmed by the weight of Russian, American and British forces.

Lesson 1 - A narcissist CEO will lead the business to disaster. Strong vision and belief are essential, but a leader who blocks constructive criticism and ignores the input of his team is doomed.

Lesson 2 - One of the best ways to beat an established competitor is with a new technology. Amazon used Internet technology to directly address the needs of book buyers.

Lesson 3 - Assuming that new contests will be similar to previous ones is dangerous. The best way to combat an opponent, who has a strong defensive position and barriers to entry in a market, is to go around those barriers and find a new way into the market.

Lesson 4 - Effort, courage and hard work are not enough. When competing with a well-entrenched opponent, you need a new technology or approach to achieve a breakthrough. A long war of attrition debilitates both sides.

India China War - 1962

The hub of Sino-Indian difference on border continued to be the Aksai-China plateau. It was of vital strategic significance to the Chinese, as it was only through this area that China could establish a road link to Tibet. Aksai-China on the other hand held no such advantage to India and was of no strategic significance for defence. For India, it was a question of national sentiments aroused by loss of territory. But this admirable sentiment was not tempered by military logic. Vociferous media and opposition parties forced reluctant Nehru on a confrontation course. The Battle of ‘Namka Chu’ is a classic example where the decisions made by a pacifist Prime Minister, an arrogant Defence Minister and a politically connected General, caused the rout of a proud brigade with many of its men dying like animals in a cage. Chinese army supported by its massive manpower, overpowered the Indian Army, which was ill-equipped and ill-trained to fight in mountainous terrain. Chinese used superior tactics and strategy to defeat India. They moved swiftly and completely surprised India as our leaders were still advocating the ‘India-China Bhai-Bhai’ policy.

Lesson 1 - In tough conditions, winning CEOs are those who have a clear vision and can communicate it to their people.

Lesson 2 - If you do not have a superior force or technology, then try a different tactic, and surprise your opponent.

Lesson 3 - It is no use going up against someone who has an 8-ft spear with a 4-ft spear. You need a different weapon. If your competitor is the giant in the market, you need a radical approach, so that you can strike rapidly and accurately.

India-Pak War 1965, 71 & Kargil

The Indo-Pakistan War of 1965, 71 and Kargil were a culmination of skirmishes that took place between Pakistan and India over the disputed region of Kashmir, the first having been fought in 1947. The war began following Pakistan's ‘Operation Gibraltar’, which was designed to infiltrate forces into Jammu and Kashmir to precipitate an insurgency against rule by India.

Pakistan was comparatively weak and used the war against India to overcome their internal difficulties without coherent policy or goals. As a result, Pakistani Army did not have a winning attitude and suffered heavy losses to their men and materials. Operations undertaken by the Pakistan Army in Bangladesh or Kargil did not have any tenacity of purpose. The combination of a competent and highly motivated army with a clear goal and mission was simply unbeatable by the Pakistan Army.

Lesson 1 - Dynamic leadership can withstand competitors’ continuous efforts to dislodge the opponent.

Lesson 2 - Corporate stalwarts should have the capability to effectively transmit their organization into a winning position and inspire them to learn, adapt, and adopt in order to achieve desired goals.

Lesson 3 - The tenacity of purpose and the will to close-in with the competitor, are essential for the success of the enterprise. Objectives are not fate; they are not commands; they are commitments.

In a life-or-death quest for strategic change, business has much to learn from war. Both are about the same thing - succeeding in competition. Even more basic, both can be distilled to four words: informed choice and timely action. The key objective in competition - whether business or war - is to improve the organization's performance by generating better information than the rival, analyzing information quickly, making sound choices, and converting strategic choices into decisive action.

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Topics: Learning & Development, Leadership, Strategic HR

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