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Lousy lessons from the battlefield.

Recently, The New York Times ran one of those predictably infuriating articles about the lessons CEOs can learn from military history. Proceeding from the assumption that "a battle is an ideal metaphor for corporate decision-making," the article discussed a visit by a group of executives to the Gettysburg battlefield, where they ostensibly absorbed valuable lessons for use in the corporate arena. Basically, this was just another excuse to gang up on poor old Robert E. Lee, lambasting him for basing decisions on faulty intelligence, lacking the ability to delegate and very possibly making poor strategic moves while suffering from heart disease. As a friend of mine says about the Confederates, borrowing a metaphor from the world of sports: "Great defense. Couldn't win on the road."

Since the inane Leadership Secrets of Attila the Hun was published 18 years ago, this warfare-as-corporate metaphor has infuriated me. While it seems obvious that the strategies of business can readily be applied to warfare--Dwight D. Eisenhower was a much better "manager" than George S. Patton--the reverse does not seem to be true. This is because, no matter what Larry Ellison and the Justice Department may say about Bill Gates, CEOs are not in a position to burn, pillage, maim and kill. Technically speaking, they are also not allowed to spy, bribe or take hostages. There are laws about that sort of thing.

What worries me most about managing-by-analogy is the questionable examples that are held up to CEOs. The only thing anyone can learn from Pickett's Charge is this: Never send a badly fed, badly equipped army across a barren field when the enemy has more guns and occupies the higher ground. And since Genghis Khan celebrated his victories by burning cities to the ground and feasting on huge banquet tables containing the still-breathing bodies of his victims, it's hard to see what lessons CEOs can take away from this. Even in a somewhat relaxed regulatory environment, putting entire civilizations to the sword can create huge problems for even the most silver-tongued PR person.

What can be learned from the great military leaders of the past is not so much battlefield tactics as overall campaign strategy. When Hannibal surprised the Romans by leading his armies across the Alps, what really demoralized his adversaries was the arrival of the Carthaginian elephants. Here, Hannibal was availing himself of what might today be described as the "killer app." Until Hannibal showed up on the scene, elephants fulfilled a primarily ornamental function in Roman society. Hannibal demonstrated the possibility of using an old technology in an entirely new setting. Though a lot of good it did him.

In our current francophobe environment, the French and Indian War provides another illuminating example for CEOs. In 1757, the American colonists and the British army were at the Frenchmen's throats. But 24 years later, it was the arrival of the French fleet at Yorktown that sealed the defeat of Cornwallis' besieged troops. Lesson: Be careful about bad-mouthing the French. They could be our friends again in the twinkling of an eye.

Here are a few other choice lessons. From Napoleon, we learn that family pedigree doesn't count for much in appointing field marshals; if a person can get the job done, it doesn't matter where he went to college. From Harold of Hastings: Never fight the Normans in the South when you've just fought the Danes in the North. From Adolf Hitler: Never get involved in a land war in Asia. From Edward I's hopelessly outnumbered, trapped English invaders, who introduced the longbow at the battle of Crecy: Superior technology will usually carry the day. From the Maginot Line: Always protect your flank, dummies. And from the unfortunate Trojans: Beware of Greeks bearing gifts. Or, if it seems too good to be true, it probably is.

Compared to these lessons from military history, the metaphor supplied by Gettysburg seems ridiculously contrived. After he lost the initiative on Day One of the epic confrontation, Lee should have pulled back. When he didn't, the aftermath was a bloodbath. But Lee and the Confederacy were already playing a losing hand: no railroads, no industry, no fleet, no money. That doesn't sound like an enterprise any CEO I can think of would care to lead. So what's the lesson a CEO can take away from Lee's situation at Gettysburg? Find a better job. Same goes for Pickett.

Joe Queenan also writes for Barron's, SmartMoney and The Wall Street Journal Contact him at
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Title Annotation:lessons CEOs can learn from military history
Author:Queenan, Joe
Publication:Chief Executive (U.S.)
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jul 1, 2003
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