CEOs Who Study Military History / Strategy

In an interview in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal, Fox News President Roger Ailes makes several references to military strategy and battles as he talks about how he plans to knock off CNBC with his new business channel. Military history seems to be a favorite topic of CEOs. To the extent that business resembles a kind of civilized warfare, it’s not surprising that a leader would study famous battles and generals.

Here’s Ailes on how he’ll overcome CNBC’s many resource advantages:

Well, if you study history, the victories did not always go to the people with the great resources. [Confederate Gen.] Stonewall Jackson seemed to be undermanned in every campaign and won. [Union Gen. George] McClellan had plenty of resources in every fight and lost. That isn’t always what matters. It’s, well, I’m not gonna tell them what it is.

On his relationship with Jeff Zucker of CNBC and competing against people you know:

In the Civil War a lot of those young men came out of West Point in the class of ’46 and went to Mexico and fought together [in the Mexican-American War]. Gen. [Ulysses S.] Grant and Gen. [Robert E.] Lee fought on the same side. Gen. [James] Longstreet, who was Lee’s No. 2, was best man at Grant’s wedding. They all knew each other from class. They knew who could ride a horse, who could draw a battlefield, who could command troops in the field. They knew how things worked. Everybody in television knows each other, and, on any given day, some people play better than others, some people get lucky, whatever. What that does is it makes the margin of success a very narrow field.

We’re going into a 90-million-home competitor with a 17-year head start who has spent the last two years making decisions to get ready for us. You know, the Germans had the high ground at Normandy [on D-Day], and you know what, Our guys did all right. I just figure, you know, the fight will begin. I feel confident our folks are ready for it.

Military imagery and references exist in politics, too. As political scientist Jack Pitney shows in his book Art of Political Warfare, politicians from Newt Gingrich to Bill Clinton studied military tactics and regularly used war metaphors when organizing their efforts.

Add military history to the list of areas I need to study!

4 Responses to CEOs Who Study Military History / Strategy

  1. gregory william says:

    Personally, I think using military strategy for running an organisation is more media sexy than it is usable. Military strategies, especially battles, by default have the pure focus of beating the enemy at a point now or in the future. In the real world such an obsession with beating the enemy is not terribly productive and restricts your creative thinking.

    For me, being an entrepreneur is about not taking on an established player head on, but either avoiding the target all together, focusing on a subset of customers they have ignored, or look at that market in a way that is not easily replicatable by the established player. However, I guess not everyone gets to work in the ‘new’.

    But, I think Sun Tzu(am I being hypocritical in referencing this? :)) said it well when he said that while close matches or the small guy winning might be thrilling – you really should pick fights you will win, comfortably.

  2. Ryan Holiday says:

    Gregory is it fun to just pull stuff out of your ass? Do you know how little of war is about taking someone head on? Have you read any strategy?

    Ben, try the 33 Strategies of War by Robert Greene.

  3. Chris Yeh says:

    Ben,

    I echo Ryan’s sentiment–The 33 Strategies of War is an excellent book. And if you don’t have time to read it right away, you can always read the outline:

    link to bookoutlines.pbwiki.com

    The reason military strategy applies even to entrepreneurs opening up new markets is that your competition isn’t limited to other companies in your industry. I often tell entrepreneurs that their top competitor is doing nothing, and that doing nothing is more fearsome than Google and Microsoft combined.

    The principles of military strategy–choosing your battlefield, protecting your supply lines, concentrating your forces, keeping your enemy off balance–apply to every situation in life.

  4. Funny how people who most like to quote military history have never actually been in the military. Neither Ailes, Gingrich or Clinton ever served.

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