Business is often compared to war, particularly when it comes to developing strategies that aim at beating the competition, leaving them in the dust.
Like in any comparison of unequal entities, the parallels only go so far. Fortunately, business is mostly a peaceful peacetime activity, while war is what it is: war.
These thoughts come to mind as I am reading Robert M. Gates’ book “DUTY”. The former Secretary of Defense has written a book that is worth reading for any adult, but should be read by all who aspire to a role in the national security apparatus of the United States, including all politicians, and also by serious business leaders.
His book has drawn attention mostly because Gates served as Secretary of Defense under two politically opposed Presidents, George W. Bush and Barack Obama, and he made the book marketable to a large audience by offering judgments on many persons and institutions he had to deal with in his capacity of war leader. The “tell it all” aspects of the book are interesting, but the real value of the book is in the thoughtful counsel it provides to future policy makers in the arena of war and peace. And in the lessons that business leaders can take away from Gates’ in depth analysis of what makes the running of the “War Department”, the largest human enterprise in America with some three million civilian and uniformed employees, such a daunting task.
Donald Rumsfeld, Gates’ predecessor, once famously responded to a soldier at a press conference in Iraq who queried him about the lack of protective equipment available to the troops: “you go to war with the army you have, not the army you want”. I saw this episode on live TV and I almost fell off my chair. Robert Gates, in his book, goes out of his way to be reverential to the man who handed him not one but two mismanaged wars, which seems strange in the context of a memoir that doles out unabashed criticism in other directions.When I heard Rumsfeld utter those words, I immediately made the connection with business and I thought “in business he would not last very long with this attitude.”
I think that Rumsfeld’s statement is only valid in a war, like World War II, where the USA was attacked, unprovoked, and had no choice but to answer the call and engage in a war it had not sought. But the war in Iraq was no such incident. It was planned for a long time and it was clearly a war of choice rather than a war of necessity. The reading of Gates’ book has reinforced in me two gradually developed beliefs: 1) that war should really only be resorted to if everything else has failed; and 2) that one should never start a war unless and until the military is equipped for success.
Here is the parallel with business: If a business leader would engage in a war against its competition without first preparing his troops for the battle, equipping them with the tools they need to beat the enemy and without mobilizing them in support of the cause for which he goes to war, he would lose the war and he would get fired. In fact, if corporate governance would work as intended, it would never get this far. His Board of Directors would not allow him to start the war unless he had demonstrated that all elements for victory were in place. To go off, half-cocked, and see what happens is a mortal sin in business (as it should be in Geo-politics).
After taking over from Rumsfeld, Robert Gates did everything in his power to give the commanders in the field whatever they needed to find success in their mission: more and better specialized troops, better intelligence gathering, better protective clothing and vehicles that could protect the troops against the biggest killer in the war, the improvised explosive device (IED). He explains in detail in his book that, even though as Secretary of Defense he had the responsibility for looking forward and making strategic decisions about the organization of the military for the future – many years, if not decades forward – he was initially laser focused on dealing with the immediate challenge of two wars that went bad and had to be turned around or abandoned.
In reading “Duty”, which is sub-titled “Memoirs of a Secretary at War”, one cannot help but be in awe of the huge responsibility that rests in war time on the political and military leadership and one wonders who would ever want to carry that level of responsibility.
Business is simple by comparison and much less deadly. It does not have to overcome the conflicting interests and views that play in democratic government even after a war has been entered into, between the legislative and the executive branch, between democrats and republicans, between the White House and the Pentagon, between the military command and the civil service, between the intelligence services and the military strategists or between the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the field commanders. Business, if it is well managed, does not nearly have the level of complexity that a Secretary of Defense has to deal with, which is huge in peacetime and nearly unfathomable in time of war. And in competitive wars between companies, even though there are winners and losers, no lives or limbs get lost as a result of any decision making.
The message conveyed in Gates’ important book contains a clear warning for leaders of any enterprise, be it public or private: before you kick off, make sure that you have a clearly articulated mission; that you have thought through the strategic alternatives available to complete your mission; that you have the right troops on board in the right numbers; that you have your troops equipped with the tools required to win their battles; and that you have your whole organization, all of your constituency, convinced of the righteousness of your cause, believing in your mission and knowing that you will support them completely and unequivocally when they go to bat for you.
That is about as solid business advice as I can think of!