Onward Through the Fog
"Seymour Cray was a friend of my dad's. I asked him once what it was like to know the genius who had built the world's first supercomputer company. My dad said, 'Well, actually, son, he wasn't so much smarter than me. He just made mistakes a hundred times faster."
-- Townes Duncan, chairman and CEO of Comptronix, in Guntersville, Ala.* * *
Ordinarily, I'm not a fan of books that plumb the art of war for business lessons. I know they're popular, but personally, I find Sun Tzu has about as much to say to me about business as Willard Scott does. But not long ago I was stranded on an airplane with nothing to read but a little book called Warfighting (Currency/Doubleday, 1989). I read it through from beginning to end, and then turned back to page one and started reading it all over again. It is that good -- and that compelling. That surprised me because it is not a business book in disguise; it's about war -- modern warfare, to be precise.
Warfighting was written by General A.M. Gray, the commandant of the U.S. Marine Corps, to issue to all marines as the "authoritative basis for how we fight and how we prepare to fight." It also happens to be one of the most relevant and timely books about leadership, management, and organizations for businesspeople that I've read in a long time. For it turns out that the conditions under which modern warfare is conducted bear an uncanny resemblance to the state of the marketplace. "All actions in war take place in an atmosphere of uncertainty -- the fog of war," writes the author. As a result, all actions in war "will be based on incomplete, inaccurate, or even contradictory information." Sound familiar? General Gray goes on to state that leaders must learn to operate in this environment by "developing simple, flexible plans; planning for contingencies; developing standing operating procedures; and fostering initiative among subordinates." While the philosophy of many management gurus these days seems to be that crazy times demand crazy organizations, the general makes a cogent argument that operating amid disorder requires more discipline, clarity, and simplicity, not less.
People looking for tips and techniques will be disappointed. What this book offers is wisdom. For example, here's what General Gray has to say about the difficulty of making decisions in the midst of ambiguity: "If we fail to make a decision out of lack of will, we have willingly surrendered the initiative to our foe. If we consciously postpone taking action for some reason, that is a decision. Thus, as a basis for action, any decision is generally better than no decision. . . . Whoever can make and implement his decisions consistently faster gains a tremendous, often decisive advantage." In fewer than 100 pages, the author offers insights into the risks of micromanaging activity; the dangers of trying to sustain a high tempo of activity indefinitely; the necessity of having decentralized organizations and the conditions required for decentralization to work; and the role of planning, training, and education. The book's 30-page conclusion, "The Conduct of War," has more to say about leadership than most entire books on the subject.