5.19.2014

What Can a 21st-Century Business Leader Learn from a 19th-Century Military Theorist?

I had an opportunity to talk with Norton Paley about his just-published book Clausewitz Talks Business: An Executive’s Guide to Thinking Like a Strategist. I started with the obvious questions: “Why did you select Clausewitz?” and “What influence does his concepts have on today’s business problems?” Here’s his response:

Carl von Clausewitz is regarded as one of the greatest Western military thinkers. Many eminent scholars consider his epic 1832 classic, On War, the most distinguished Western work on war ever written.

In recent years, his insightful concepts have gained serious attention among business executives, as have other military classics, notably Sun Tzu's
The Art of War. As significant, interest has spread from the C-suites to the lower echelons of organizations as individuals increasingly accept the parallel of how military concepts apply to business. 

 I've taken Clausewitz’s original text and interpreted and transposed his most durable ideas on leadership and strategy to help executives think like strategists. To my knowledge, this book represents the first serious effort to tap into his entire work and extract his remarkable lessons on strategy for business application. 

Readers can now see how to integrate his lasting historical references with modern business practices and thereby uncover potential solutions to some of today’s more critical competitive problems. 

“Can you give examples of Clausewitz’s better known concepts?”

 Here are some of his timeless principles:
 • In conflict, even the ultimate outcome is never to be regarded as final. The outcome is merely a transitory evil for which a remedy may still be found in a variety of possible conditions at some later date.
 • Two basic principles underlie all strategic planning: First, act with the utmost concentration; second, act with the utmost speed. 
• What matters is to detect the culminating point of actions with discriminating judgment. 
• Action in conflict is like movement in a resistant element. Just as the simplest movement, walking, cannot easily be performed in water, so in conflict it is difficult for normal efforts to achieve even moderate results. 
• The opponent’s capabilities must be neutralized; that is, they must be put in such a condition that they can no longer carry on the conflict. 
• Just as a businessperson cannot take the profit from a single transaction and put it into a separate account, so an isolated advantage gained in conflict cannot be assessed separately from the overall result. 

“How would you sum up the advantages of your book?”

The central aim of the book is to help individuals think strategically about such managerial issues as human behavior, leadership, and organizational culture. If the book provides executives with a better understanding of how to face up to competitive struggles and apply appropriate strategies to outmaneuver the competitive obstacles they face, its purpose will have been achieved. 


What do you think of Paley's interpretation of Clausewitz? What books have influenced your business leadership and strategy?

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