The Allure of Battle: A History of How Wars Have Been Won and Lost is a book by Cathal J. Nolan on the misconception by military commanders, generals, and heads of state into the mid-twentieth century that war has and can be won through quick, decisive battles fought through energetic, swift lighting strikes against a vulnerable enemy. According to Nolan, the idea that wars have and can be won through decisive battle is an illusion brought on by the maxims of Napoleon and Clausewitz and the perpetuating notion taught to military commanders that genius in battle is what wins wars, not the strategic political conditions brought to fruition through over-extended men, supplies, and nations at war for protracted periods of time.
There is much we can learn from Nolan’s work, especially as strategists, but the most important takeaway for leaders in multiple disciplines, but especially business, is the extent to which decisive, quick victory can be achieved is limited. The elements that comprise staying victory, in battle those are political but in business those are unit economics, are hard and difficult to achieve. Decisive battles in business, the release of amazing products or the launch of a great marketing campaign, are but blips in the lifespan of a company. To achieve staying power requires more than what leaders may consider to be decisive moves, but rather requires the long, hard won differentiating capabilities achieved over the long-term, whether operational or not.
This notion is in line with Minimum Viable Strategic thinking, and is why we choose to highlight the Allure of Battle here, because of its applicability to our strategic construct, Minimum Viable Strategy.
Nolan also touches on what we call Chancellorsville Syndrome, which is the belief that previous victories or successes have a direct impact on future success. We draw the name from Lee at Gettysburg, who James McPherson in Hallowed Ground says made a strategic error in attacking with Pickett in a frontal assault, decimating his forces, due to his hubris gained after the battle at Chancellorsville. Lee’s assumption was that the strategy employed at Chancellorsville that proved successful would also work at Gettysburg, but the reality of the situation was quite different.
Nolan provides similar analysis for the Germans, whom coming fresh off victories in the 19th century put themselves into long wars of attrition in the 20th. “Operational arrogance plunged Germans into wars that proved to be, and maybe always were, unwinnable struggles of materiel, additionally marked by ‘the people’s war’ Moltke and his followers so feared and sought so desperately to avoid.” (Nolan, pg. 10)
Nolan claims it was the fear of losing the initial battle and the belief that decisive victories in battle produce decisive victories in war which led to the unexpected outbreak of world wars in the 20th century as no major power, especially the Germans, wanted to be reactive and lose the ability to fight the first battle on their own terms. Their belief was that initial victories produce speedy and lasting results.
We see this to be true time and again in startup culture and the growth at all cost mentality. The belief is that those companies that gain the foothold initially will be those with the greatest staying power over the long-term.
We continue to see this to not be the case, as those companies with growth at all costs mentalities time and again pull back, cut staff, and falter because of Chancellorsville Syndrome and a growth at all costs mentality that causes them to lose the discipline of creating staying power with customers and organizationally.
Indeed, the New York Times recently reported the bankrupcy filing of Naty Gal. The newspaper claims that the fast-growing startup was a culture of “rapid growth, built largely around the personality of Nasty Gal’s founder and uncercut by mismanagement and legal stumbles.” Or, as stated in the article by Allison Enright:
…growth and solvency are two different things. “They were able to grow their sales very quickly,” she said. “But you can always grow really fast and not make any money.”
Here we are, then, at the dichotemy of the internet world: the capacity for growing quickly but in an undisciplined way, which subverts staying power in the marketplace. The lust for growth, therefore, must always be tempered with an overall objective of achieving lasting staying power and a clear road to get there through specific tangible actions.
Deep Capacity for Logistics
Nolan claims that the answer to victory lay “not in brilliant tactics…or superior generals but…a deep capacity for logistics.” (Nolan pg. 24) He claims that the Romans beat Carthage, not because of their superior generalship, but because they could continue to replenish men to the front despite losses.
“What mattered more was the Roman state’s ability to replace its losses from a vast military establishment (standing army) and thus to continue fighting; to come back at its enemies in wave after demoralizing wave of fresh legions and auxiliaries, and with high capable engineers and supply units moving armies over excellent roads or by galley atop closed Roman seas. This strategic capacity to absorb defeat, even at catastrophic defeat, was rooted in economic, social, and cultural reserves and enforced matrtial and civic unity, more than in superior tactics or generalship.” (Nolan, pg. 25)
In my own mind, this is the key to staying power: the ability to sustain a competitive advantge over the long-run through an organizationals capabilities. Hope is not a strategy and luck shouldn’t be what is rought. Staying power should be routine and managed routinely through a disciplined approach to organizational management.
In conclusion, Nolan’s book offers insight to the business strategist and the war strategist. We see the tangible takeaways in business through, bot the insight into the limitations of decisive battle mentalities, and the power of what a deep capacity for logistics can bring to an organization’s staying power capabilities.