Business Strategy: Fight Like a Sergeant, Think Like a General

Strategy is about ideas, not brute force

“One man on a wall was worth 10 beneath it.”

—Game of Thrones

Taking the high ground for military advantage is a well-worn axiom. Building moats, putting men on walls, using the element of surprise, concentrating forces, and employing many other phrases of war are often used in business. Strategy itself came to us via warfare, somewhere around 400 B.C.

Sometimes these concepts become so worn that we forget what they actually mean. In this case, it means that shooting arrows or dumping rocks and hot oil from a high point is a lot easier than climbing a wall to inflict violence, not to mention the visibility advantage a high point offers.

So it’s interesting that a well-established concept — strategy — that’s thousands of years old and widely accepted is so often ignored.

Any general in an army who would attack the heart of the enemy without overwhelming force would be court marshaled, yet CEOs lead companies into battle against their competitors without a clear advantage. No general would tell his troops to ignore the high ground and fight for and hold the low ground, yet CEOs expect their people to “fight” with outdated products and services, with no clear answer to why their target customers will buy from them versus the competition.

A client and I recently discussed one of his direct reports — a talented guy, but one who scurries around, mistaking “busy” for effective. His efforts at building the business through brute force aren’t, and won’t, work — regardless of how fast he scurries. He needs new ideas, a refreshed way to address his competitive market — finding the high ground. Unless, however, he takes the time to think about his business strategically, he’s bound to scamper around the deck as the ship sinks.

Battles and wars are won by ideas more so than brute force, by taking the high ground. Lead your troops like a battle-focused sergeant, but think like a general to make sure you’re in the right war!

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