Wartime CEOs are best defined by example: Ben Horowitz at Opsware, Larry Page at Google, and Steve Jobs at Apple. If you are an early-stage startup CEO, you are at war. You are at war when you are gathering intelligence about your target market. You are at war when you are forging product/market fit. You are at war when you are battling for market share.

Here are the steps necessary to becoming a successful wartime CEO:

1. Know When to Declare War

When you declare war, you are limiting the focus and scope of your company. This is expensive and oftentimes a difficult decision. The mobilization for war must be made with proper consideration:

  • Do you know what you need to win?
  • Do you know what victory would looks like?
  • Do you know who the enemy is? (More on this later)

2. Communicate Clearly

Make sure everyone knows that the red button has been pushed. One early morning in Tokyo, I came into work to see "Destroy Amazon!" posters and our executives in urban camo t-shirts sporting the same slogan. There was no mistaking that we were at war. Our morning meeting began, and every presentation had a new set of metrics comparing our performance to Amazon's. Every single person in the company got the message that we were mobilizing for war, and the enemy was the forces of Jeff Bezos.

Amazon's recent expansion into Japan made them the clear enemy, but not every enemy needs to be so immediate. There is a philosophic concept called the "reflection," which hypothesises that the cause of a conflict can be anything. In essence, you can choose an enemy and invent a reason for your rivalry, and this will unify your team against the opposition. If you make the decision to declare war, an immediate enemy is not necessary--you can invent one.

4. Choose Your Battlefield

War will redefine every detail of your company. Metrics will change and timelines will shift, and the CEO has the responsibility to guide these efforts. In doing so, you must be able to refocus on a few key areas. Upon his return to Apple, Steve Jobs famously cut down Apple's projects from 350 to 10. This enabled the attention to detail required to bring the company back from the brink.

5. Redefine the Culture

War is pervasive: Every entity at the company is focused on winning, and the cost of this is immense. Sometimes this means making hard cultural decisions that sacrifice some peacetime gains. For example, under Eric Schmidt, Google implemented its 20 percent rule, where employees were allowed 20 percent of their work time to develop new projects. They recently have had to revise these rules to enforce more alignment with broader company goals.

6. Know When to Bet

When Page came to power at Google, war was not inevitable. The company's core product, the search engine, was dominant and it had multiple successful businesses running in tandem. After surveying the battlefield, Page recognized that there were threats on the horizon: Bing was eating market share and Facebook was rewiring the way people consume information. Google was no longer the darling of the tech scene, and Page took swift and decisive action to change that.

7. Aim to Win

Once you declare war, you are embarking on a very costly journey with your company. This means that the push to victory must come at the expense of all other concerns. Being a great wartime CEO isn't about making everyone happy-- it's about making people focus on victory.

Analysis, communication, intelligence, focus, culture, risk-taking and envisioning victory: These all come about by strategically utilising the resources your company has, as well as repurposing your culture. This is not an easy transition, but the transition is possible, and sometimes, it is necessary.

Published on: Aug 26, 2014
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