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12 Life Lessons From a Military Strategist

03/11/2014 02:25 pm ET | Updated May 11, 2014

The realms of relationships, politics, and conflicts pour into our daily lives. Each is also related to war. (For example, author Alain de Botton once wrote about "romantic terrorism.") Similarly, the business world is built on war principles, hence the terms "campaign" and "strategy."

B.H. Liddell Hart was generally recognized as one of the most brilliant military strategists of the 20th century. He had fought in World War I and advised the British war leaders through World War II. History has clearly played a crucial part in his success as a strategist:

In predicting the decisive developments of World War II I know that I owed more to this practical application of the historical method than to any brainwave of my own.

That passage was taken from his book, Why Don't We Learn From History?. I've plucked some passages that have some interesting parallels to modern day life. It starts with history functioning not as a mere set of stories, but as a substance to soothe the mind:

1. History as Mental Medicine

A long historical view not only helps us to keep calm in a "time of trouble" but reminds us that there is an end to the longest tunnel.

Even a basic glimpse into the fundamentals of history reminds learners that times of trouble are temporary and will come to pass. Every tunnel has an end. Our fight lies not necessarily with bringing about a swifter end, but with enduring until we adapt and earn the ability to thrive under changing conditions.

2. The Best Sources of Thought and Advice

In contrast to the military, the medical profession has incessant practice. Yet the great advances in medicine and surgery have been due more to the scientific thinker and research worker than to the practitioner.

Many entrepreneurs or startup employees repeat the mantra, "Ideas are worthless, and execution is everything." While many people err on the side of valuing ideas too heavily, simply executing harder is no panacea for life or business problems. As Liddell Hart writes:

A life spent in sowing a few grains of fruitful thought is a life spent more effectively than in hasty action that produces a crop of weeds. That leads us to see the difference, truly a vital difference, between influence and power.

Furthermore, Liddell Hart also suggests refraining from taking advice from just about anyone:

The test of whether the principle works is to be found in the product.

He also writes:

To take the opinion of generals, admirals, or air marshals on the deeper problems of war, as distinct from its executive technique, is like consulting your local pharmacist about the treatment of a deep-seated disease. However skilled in compounding drugs, it is not their concern to study the causes and consequences of the disease, nor the psychology of the sufferers.

Even the best sources can easily share flawed advice -- either due to a lack of specialized expertise or situational context. If you must ask, try to find information instead of an opinionated piece of advice.

3. Keeping Your Hands Clean in a Dirty World

A different habit, with worse effect, was the way that ambitious officers when they came in sight of promotion to the generals' list, would decide that they would bottle up their thoughts and ideas, as a safety precaution, until they reached the top and could put these ideas into practice. Unfortunately the usual result, after years of such self-repression for the sake of their ambition, was that when the bottle was eventually uncorked the contents had evaporated.

One of humanity's greatest strengths is habituation. Unfortunately, this power also acts as our greatest weakness. Stay in a situation or system too long, and you risk changing to become little more than just a part of that machine.

In order to preserve their chances of promotion, officers bottled up their opinions and feelings until they reached the highest ranks of the army, claiming they'd change the system once they earned the power to. When they finally became the new leaders, they realized that their original ambitions were nowhere to be found. Ambition is not a constant, nor are drive and motivation. Use them while you have it. And if you do not, then it will be your job to get them back.

It was because he really understood war that he became so good at securing peace. He was the least militaristic of soldiers and free from the least of glory. It was because he saw the value of peace that he became so unbeatable in war.

What an interesting paradox -- in order to secure peace, you must understand war. In order to spread generosity, you must understand greed. In order to fully live life, you must face death. I'll stop with the cliches: these nice wordy paradoxes could go on ad infinitum.

4. How to Avoid Becoming a Yes-Man or a Yes-Woman

Loyalty is a noble quality, so long as it is not blind and does not exclude the higher loyalty to truth and decency.

Your greatest loyalty should always be to truth and decency. Any other priorities are secondary. All conflicting priorities can be negated. This is integrity and honesty, and while it may be brutal in the short-run, your friends and family will thank you in the long-run, and your advice will become more valuable.

5. Process and Shortcuts

Bad means lead to no good end.

This neatly summarizes Liddell Hart's thoughts on governments that considered temporarily employing totalitarianism in order to speed up decision making during times of war. I am neither a historian nor a political scientist, so I won't comment any further on this opinion -- but I do agree with this thought in general; if your conscience goes against it, think twice.

We learn from history that expediency has rarely proved expedient.

A short-term focus on speed can result in a slower project overall. For example, pair programming appears to be more wasteful and slow than a single programmer. While they appear slower than two individual programmers, their results shine in debugging -- where they produce 15 percent fewer bugs. As debugging is a large part of project time, having an extra pair of eyes allows programmers to nip these bugs in the bud.

A simpler example: One of my best friends was running late for our group date (unfortunately, I was extremely early), and was stuck on a non-express train into downtown. He hopped off to catch a cab, hoping to get into town on time. As luck would have it, there were no cabs around, and he had to wait for the next train. Due to his unfortunate forecast, he was later than he would have been had he stayed on the original train. (Not to worry, he still arrived before our dates -- another story, perhaps for another time.)

6. How Freedom Bolsters Productivity

I believe that freedom is the foundation of efficiency, both national and military.

Liddell Hart recalled that the Australian Corps, a small fighting force opposed to conscription, was generally recognized as the best fighting force in the fourth year of the war. Their choice to fight contributed to their overall effectiveness.

While not in the domain of the military, I've found this to be true of my own personal productivity. My quality and quantity of output improves when I get to choose the times I work, the location, and the methods that I employ. Research from Concordia University supports this: freedom increases employee productivity and workplace satisfaction.

7. Submission Is Not a Solution

... They at least showed themselves men of honor and, in a long view, of more fundamental common sense than those who argued that we should give aggressors a free hand so long as they left us alone. History has shown, repeatedly, that the hope of buying safety in this way is the greatest of delusions.

Submitting to a threat is not a solution; it should merely be a cost you pay to purchase more time -- usually to strike back, or building leverage to compel negotiation.

When the Persians invaded ancient Greece, some Greek city states chose to side with the much more sizable and intimidating army. Larger city states, like Athens and Sparta, realized that this was futile: there would be no mercy for these two powerhouses, and even if they had bended to Persia's whims, they would only be losing power and morale in the process. There was nothing to gain by waiting out an impending conflict.

Or as Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata wrote:

It is better to die on your feet than to live on your knees!

8. Rethinking Victory

Think about why acquisitions are preferred to stomping a competitor out of existence. Besides the potential mutual conservation of resources and possible mutual benefits:

For victory has always sown the seeds of a fresh war, because victory breeds among the vanquished a desire for vindication and vengeance and because victory raises fresh rivals.

Although we mainly see conflict winning victories in movies and the news, the indirect method of victory could also be the most effective. Winning an argument does little except for a temporary boost in ego. Instead, leave a trail for your opponent to move back to and exit from the arena:

It is an elementary principle of strategy that, if you find your opponent in a strong position costly to force, you should leave him a line of retreat - as the quickest way of loosening his resistance.

Also, understand that if you push too hard, you may get bitten:

But the more right it is, the more vital that Western statesmen in taking counter-measures should bear in mind a long-standing lesson of police experience -- that "a burglar doesn't commit murder unless he is cornered."

9. Postpone to Diffuse Tension

On the other hand, tension is almost bound to relax eventually if war is postponed long enough. This has happened often before in history, for situations change.

While procrastination can be a terrible trait, it can also be a great strength: if you can bring yourself to procrastinate on a vice, it could help diffuse the tension or inner conflict.

10. Embrace the Calm

I love Kanye West to death, but I think it would be easier to defend my musical tastes and opinions on him if he embraced this principle:

Keep strong, if possible. In any case, keep cool. Have unlimited patience. Never corner an opponent and always assist him to save his face.

Unfortunately, by calling out companies like Nike or Saint Laurent, he is only working himself into further anger -- as well as repulsing them from potentially collaborating with him in the future. It's an expressive choice, but certainly not the most pragmatic option.

11. Get Comfortable with Breaking Rules

A model boy rarely goes far, and even when he does he is apt to falter when severely tested. A boy who conforms immaculate to school rules is not likely to grow into a man who will conquer by breaking the stereotyped professional rules of his time -- as conquest has most often been achieved.

Liddell Hart's view on breaking rules is it's a skill that will be tested. Should you continue playing in the boundaries of (artificial) safety, your skill in breaking rules and your courage will dwindle compared to someone who is forced to break from tradition and dogma often. If your day job doesn't allow for this, perhaps you should consider a side project that forces you to think differently.

We learn from history that democracy has commonly put a premium on conventionality. By its nature, it prefers those who keep step with the slowest march of thought and frowns on those who may disturb the "conspiracy for mutual inefficiency."

The people that want things to stay the same are the ones who are currently at the top (as the late political organizer Saul D. Alinksy called them, the Haves). This is a very small slice of the population; if you are to try to vault yourself into it, at the very least you will have to reinvent the rules and the system in some way.

12. Reinforcing Morals with Mutual Convenience

We must face the fact that international relations are governed by interests and not by moral principles. Then it can be seen that the validity of treaties depends on mutual convenience.

Because most people are governed by self-interest, you would do well to bind your promises to mutual conveniences. As much as possible, make sure your incentives or rewards are in line with your ally's.

Entrepreneur Andy Fletcher suggests broaching this topic with your collaborator: "How can we protect each other from getting ripped off?"

His observation: "If they get insulted by this question. There's a good chance it was an option to them."

Closing Thoughts

When in doubt, seek relevant information. Whatever problem you are facing, it's likely that someone else has faced some form of it in the past -- your job is to seek out the information (yikes), process it, understand it, and apply it. I'll leave you with one of Liddell Hart's gems from Why Don't We Learn From History?:

There is no excuse for anyone who is not illiterate if he is less than three thousand years old in mind.

Herbert Lui is the Creative Director of Wonder Shuttle. He is the author of a free guide to building credibility online.

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