7 Leadership Lessons From The Battlefield


Note : This article is written as a distillation of a few ideas from Robert Greene’s 2006 book The 33 Strategies Of War. 

“As in war, so in life.” 

Robert Greene


1. Judge People By Their Actions

During the American Civil War, Ulysses S. Grant was responsible for some of the Union Army’s greatest victories. There were also, of course, times of horrendous defeat. The public blamed their losses on Grant and his alcoholism, calling him a drunkard. President Abraham Lincoln, however, saw through the people’s criticisms. He knew that Grant shared his belief in offensive warfare and unlike most generals, Grant didn’t have an oversized ego. Lincoln stuck with Grant because he was the only general capable of effective action.

The truth is, people can be sweet-talkers — Brilliant at twisting words and coming up with ideas. They can also have a knack in slandering others and glorifying themselves as part of their self-promotion. Words, sadly, are more often than not just masks that people put on to impress others, and that mask will fall off their faces in times of difficulty.

Therefore the only worthy and effective metric is action — What a person does, how he or she treats her work and deals with people. Those are the real reflections of his or her character and beliefs. As Baltasar Gracian said, “The truth is generally seen, not heard.”

Next time you’re choosing a leader, a team mate — or a spouse, think of this one advice. After all, the Prophet (pbuh) himself advised us to ask friends and family members of a man or woman that we are interested in marrying, about what he or she is really like. So that rather than being driven by our emotions, we can be objective. How can you top that, right?


2. Tactical Hell or Strategic Heaven?

So, which one are you in right now? Tactical Hell? Or Strategic Heaven? ….Or you probably don’t understand what I’m saying. You know, I used to think “tactic” and “strategy” are the same thing. They aren’t.

Most of us are stuck in Tactical Hell. It basically means that you’re in a reactionary mode, responding to every stimuli that demands your attention, sweating on every tiny battle that comes up, many of them unimportant. They drain you a lot mentally and physically, and they don’t even matter much. Yet, you’re being tactical — Reacting in a way that the present moment is the only thing that you see.

Strategic Heaven, on the other hand, is about elevating yourself above the battlefield. It’s about seeing, thinking, and feeling beyond the present moment. You’re thinking long-term, seeing how things are a long way, perhaps years from now. From that vantage point, you know clearly what you’re trying to achieve, what you should avoid, what present battles are worth losing, what is worth fussing about, what matters and what doesn’t matter.

Otto von Bismarck dedicated a great deal of his energy to bring about the unification of Germany. Once that was done, that was that. His work was done. He had no plans to conquer any more land. People thought the Iron Chancellor had grown soft. But he probably thought, “What do I care? My goal was Germany. I knew what I wanted.” He wasn’t tempted by bloodlust and the siren call of more.


3. Declare War On Your Enemies

Before anything, you need to realize, your first warfare is self-directed. A lot of the time your worst enemy is yourself. We have our ego, our laziness, naivete, simple-mindedness and short-term thinking that prevent ourselves from going places. You can’t expect to have mastery in anything if you haven’t mastered yourself, neither can you expect to lead other people if you can’t lead yourself first.

But there’s also another thing. Besides your inner enemies, there are also real, outer enemies in this life. Not everybody in the world is nice. There are people who’d dislike you for who you are, who’d hate to see you succeed. There are people who are willing to sabotage your work and do ugly things behind your back. And you have to keep an eye out on them and come up with ways to avoid yourself from stepping into their traps. Face it, even the kindest man the world ever knew, the Prophet (pbuh) had his enemies. The sooner you realize this and draw the line between friend and foe, the less harm it will inflict on you, and the more realistic your strategies will be.


4. Do Not Fight The Last War

When we were kids, our minds were much more fluid. We were open to new experiences and we absorbed everything that was happening around us as a form of our education. Because if we didn’t know those things, we’d have a scarce chance of surviving in this world. But as adults, we tend to satisfy ourselves with thinking that we know all there is to know. Our minds become rigid and formulaic — We think that there is a black-and-white answer to everything, that “if this worked before, then it’s gonna work this time.”

In war, you can’t afford to fight the same way you did before. Every battle is different. Unexpected events arise — as Murphy’s Law indicates, anything can happen. There are our plans, and there is reality.

You need to acknowledge every situation as different, start again from scratch, and be creative in achieving the best results possible. Robert Greene wrote, “It is often best to imagine that you know nothing and that you need to start learning all over again. Clearing your head of everything you thought you knew, even your most cherished ideas, will give you the mental space to be educated by your present experience — the best school of all.”

The greatest strategists such as Napoleon Bonaparte and Alexander the Great understood this. In Napoleon’s words, “Anyone can plan a campaign, but few are capable of waging a war, because only a true military genius can handle the developments and circumstances.”


5. Stay Calm, Maintain Your Presence Of Mind

A cool head is what separates a leader and a mere follower. Because again, anything can happen, and anything can go wrong in life. A leader knows that an event is only made worse in his own imagination. He remembers that his response is in his hands. He chooses what it is that he wants to do with his circumstances. Frederick the Great wrote to his general, “For the love of God, pull yourself together and do not look at things so darkly : the first step backward makes a poor impression in the army, the second step is dangerous, and the third becomes fatal.”

Disorder spells chaos in the battlefield. You must train yourself to take action — one step at a time and not let yourself get intimidated by the whole picture or by how things appear.

And also, there’s a saying from businessman John D. Rockefeller, which acted as his motto — “Be fearful when others are greedy, and be greedy when others are fearful”. Staying cool doesn’t only mean not letting the scary things get the best of you. It also means not letting excitement get to your head. What seems like a victory in the present might actually be a great loss from a future vantage point. Which is why stepping back and calculating is just as important.


6. Create A Sense Of Urgency

In the book Robert Greene calls this the “Deathground Strategy”. Sometimes what you need to do is put yourself in a situation where you’ve got nowhere to run. You only have two options — 1. Fight. 2. Die.

Very often it brings the best out of you, even abilities you never realized you had. It’s the same reason why general Tariq bin Ziyad burned his own army’s boats or why Bendahara Tun Perak brought his soldiers’ families along to where they fought.

We live in a society that hides the thought of death as much as possible. As a result, we live complacently as if we have limitless time — When in reality, every breath we take brings us closer to our last. The scary part is, that can happen anytime, at any place.

It’s a tale as old as time — Guy nearly dies, then vows to live his life to the fullest. Because it’s true. We are dying. And the worst of us — I mean, the majority of us are ones that die without leaving anything valuable for other people, or at least, without taking any initiative at all.

Set deadlines for your project. Do something. Get yourself moving before you are ready. Start working. How much longer do you want to wait?


7. Make the Most of What You Have

People who wait for favorable conditions or enough resources to arrive never get anything done. The great men and women do not waste their time complaining about what they don’t have. Rather, they focus on what they can do with what they do have, be it sticks and stones.

Here’s a passage from the book that captures it best :

“The next time you launch a campaign, try an experiment : do not think about either your solid goals or your wishful dreams, and do not plan out your strategy on paper. Instead think deeply about what you have — the tools and materials you will be working with. Ground yourself not in dreams and plans but in reality : think of your own skills, any political advantage you might have, the morale of your troops..Then, out of that process, let your plans and goals blossom. Not only will your strategies be more realistic, they will be more inventive and forceful.”

The Roman poet Ovid said, “Abundance makes me poor”. Having everything by your side probably isn’t the best thing to happen anyway — Your skills die off, you become dependent on material rather than your own abilities. Contrarily, lack of funds or tools give way to a more creative approach to warfare, thereby making your work more meaningful and effective.

Robert Greene is known for his advice to young writers, reminding them that “all is material”. He himself was once an aspiring writer who had no idea what to write about. He only began to write at quite a later age. He spent his young life moving from job to job and living in different countries. His parents were a little disappointed, needless to say. But he soon realized that all of that time spent served a purpose. He was an avid reader of history and through the many odd jobs he worked, he found that the world today is still very much like what he had read — only less bloody. Though unintentional, he observed and learned truths of human nature in his workplaces. The result? — He wrote a book that only he could write, one that was unique in his way, based on his own experiences. And he stands as one of the leading strategic minds still around today.




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