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On War

By Stuart Crainer and Des Dearlove

Brightline Initiative BlogKarl von Clausewitz (1780-1831) was a Prussian general and military strategist.  Von Clausewitz fought in the Napoleonic wars and in the Rhine campaigns (1793–94).  Then, working on behalf of Russia from 1812 until 1814, von Clausewitz helped negotiate the convention of Tauroggen (1812).  This laid the ground for an alliance of Prussia, Russia, and Great Britain in opposition to Napoleon.  In his later career, von Clausewitz rejoined the Prussian army, fought at the Battle of Waterloo, and became director of the Prussian war college in 1818.  His book, On War, was unfinished and published posthumously.

Von Clausewitz was firmly of the mind that comparisons between the military and commercial worlds were both valid and useful. “Rather than comparing it [war] to art we could more accurately compare it to commerce, which is also a conflict of interests and activities; and it is still closer to politics, which in turn may be considered as a kind of commerce on a larger scale,” he writes in On War.

As one would expect of a military theorist, von Clausewitz possesses a strong strain of pragmatism. “To be practical, any plan must take account of the enemy’s power to frustrate it; the best chance of overcoming such obstruction is to have a plan that can be easily varied to fit the circumstances met; to keep such adaptability, while still keeping the initiative, the best way is to operate along a line which offers alternative objectives,” he advises.  Mere theory will get you nowhere.  (In this, and other areas, von Clausewitz was heavily influenced by the wily, power politics so potently mapped out by Machiavelli.)  “Knowing is different from doing and therefore theory must never be used as norms for a standard, but merely as aids to judgement,” von Clausewitz writes.  Pragmatism is combined with a desire to achieve results through minimal effort —  “A prince or general can best demonstrate his genius by managing a campaign exactly to suit his objectives and his resources, doing neither too much nor too little.”

Most famously, von Clausewitz observes that war “is merely the continuation of policy by other means”.  Instead of being catastrophic, he views war as a normal and acceptable part of politics.  Little wonder, perhaps, that Mao and Lenin were fans of von Clausewitz’s work.

Von Clausewitz differentiates between strategy – the overall plan – and mere tactics – planning of a discrete part of the overall plan (ie the battle).  Above this, von Clausewitz placed what he labeled “grand strategy”, the overall political aims.  Arguments over the difference between strategy and tactics have raged inconclusively ever since.

Von Clausewitz’s view was success came through concentrating on one battle at a time.  This is the distant precursor of the managerial theory of Management By Objectives.  “By looking on each engagement as part of a series, at least insofar as events are predictable, the commander is always on the high road to his goal,” he writes.

More recently management thinkers have sought inspiration from leading military thinker Basil Liddell Hart (1895–1970) – in particular from his 1967 book, Strategy.  And, today’s management gurus – including Richard Pascale – have examined military approaches to such issues as leadership, training, motivation and strategy.

Indeed, von Clausewitz has undergone something of a renaissance.  A 2001 book, Clausewitz on Strategy: Inspiration and Insight from a Master Strategist, gathered a selection of his bon mots.  The selection was made by consultants from the Boston Consulting Group and an academic from the US’s National War College.

While Clausewitz’s insights are interesting – especially for nineteenth century Prussian military enthusiasts — their usefulness is debatable. Traditional military role models look increasingly tired and out of kilter with business reality.  Across the world there is a move away from military role models which essentially exercise control on not only team-members’ behaviors but also on their thinking. For companies to survive in this increasingly competitive global world it is essential to have front-line people who can think for themselves and exercise a high degree of creativity.  The traditional military model of command and control mitigates against this.

“Obviously there will be some aspects of military leadership that are applicable to the leadership of today – trust and precision for example,” says Fons Trompenaars, co-author of 21 Leaders for the 21st Century.  “However, in the military I have seen lot of extravagances go unpunished because of the simplicity of the goal or the enemy.  In the modern business world things are more complex than having just one adversary.” It seems that even a well-thumbed copy of On War is unlikely to be of use if the entire world is out to compete with you.

Karl von Clausewitz, On War (trans. and ed. Michael Howard and Peter Paret), Princeton University Press, 1984

Tiha von Ghyczy; Bolko von Oetinger; & Christopher Bassford (eds)
Clausewitz on Strategy
, John Wiley, 2001

This was originally published in What we mean when we talk about strategy by Stuart Crainer and Des Dearlove (Infinite Ideas, 2016).

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