Seventy-two years ago today, on July 5, 1945, General Douglas MacArthur officially announced the liberation of the Philippines. It was a triumphal moment for the 5-star general. It marked the ultimate fulfillment of his memorable promise ("I shall return"), and it brought the war in the Pacific to Japan's doorstep.

MacArthur was one of the world's most admired leaders in those days, and although the Chinese and President Harry Truman would tarnish his shining reputation in the 1950s, MacArthur's strategic creativity, agility, and focus in World War II's Pacific Theater remain a high point in military history. They also offer valuable lessons to founders who are searching for innovative ways to gain a foothold in highly competitive markets populated by stronger, more established players.

Hit 'em where they ain't

Smart leaders avoid head-to-head market competition. Instead, they look for a creative strategy that enables them to take full advantage of their strengths and their opponents' weaknesses. That's what MacArthur did in the southwest Pacific in WWII.

MacArthur described his strategy as "hit 'em where they ain't," "leap-frogging," and "bypassing." Simply put, he refused to attack the enemy's strongholds.

Instead, MacArthur leapt over them to establish beachheads in less-well-defended spots. Then, he either destroyed the strongholds by an envelopment or he simply cut out their communications and supplies and left them to wither away while he drove forward.

"It was the practical application of this system of warfare--to avoid frontal attack with its terrible loss of life; to bypass Japanese strong points and neutralize them by cutting their lines of supply; to thus isolate their armies and starve them on the battlefield; to, as [Baseball Hall of Famer] Willie Keeler used to say, 'hit 'em where they ain't'--that from this time forward guided my movements and operations," explained MacArthur.

As you consider your competitive strategy, ask yourself these two questions:

  • In what segments of the market are our competitors most vulnerable?
  • How can we use the "hit 'em where they ain't" strategy to gain a secure foothold in the market?

Build in flexibility

Plans are based on predictions about the future. But those predictions don't always come to pass. That's why MacArthur avoided the two most common traps of planning: inflexibility and over-planning.

During WWII, MacArthur would order two or three sets of plans encompassing alternative strategies for major campaigns. And he was quick to discard his plans when unexpected opportunities arose. MacArthur's return to the Philippines occurred two months early, and at Leyte instead of Mindanao, because the Navy discovered that the central Philippines was only lightly defended.

MacArthur also avoided the tactical paralysis that often accompanies over-planning. He disliked the fact that "[f]inal decisions are made not at the front by those who are there, but many miles away by those who can but guess at the possibilities and potentialities. The essence of victory lies in the answer to where and when."

As you create your strategic plan, ask yourself these two questions:

  • Does our plan draw a clear line between strategy and tactics?
  • Is our strategy flexible enough to account for the things that we can't predict?

Use every available means

Start-ups and small companies seeking to enter new markets are often strapped for resources. At the start of his drive back to the Philippines from Australia (a 3,000-mile journey from island to island), MacArthur was, too. There were severe shortages of troops and equipment in the Pacific.

MacArthur met this challenge by considering how to best use every means at his disposal to attain victory. One solution was the then-unique "triphibious" concept, in which he united ground, sea, and air forces in tightly integrated strategic plans.

The triphibious concept enabled MacArthur to stretch the theater's limited resources. When he couldn't transport the artillery needed to attack the Japanese on the northeastern coast of New Guinea by land or sea, MacArthur turned to his air force. The airmen figured out how to disassemble, load, and fly big guns into battle. Later, they dropped artillery by parachute, too.

This innovative use of air support drew Winston Churchill's attention. "I have watched with particular admiration your masterly employment of transport aircraft to solve most complicated and diverse logistical problems," Churchill wired MacArthur.

As you consider the resources needed to execute your strategy, ask yourself these two questions:

  • Is our strategic plan unnecessarily limited by beliefs and/or circumstances?
  • How can we adapt our existing resources to better serve our goals?
Published on: Jul 5, 2017
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