In a memorable scene in the movie Patton, George C. Scott, in the title role, having successfully anticipated a German attack, shakes his fist at the advancing panzers and yells, “Rommel, you SOB, I’ve read your book!” Patton was a voracious reader, but the film’s producers were exercising a good deal of artistic license. The incident never happened, and there is no evidence that Rommel’s actions were predictable from his writings. In fact, Patton himself believed that all that could be learned from such works were “the eternal verities of leadership, morale, psychological effects and the difficulties and confusion which battle entails,” as he was quoted in Roger H. Nye’s The Patton Mind: The Professional Development of an Extraordinary Leader (1992).
Our modern concept of strategy emerged in Europe during the 18th century. Prior to that era, few writings on strategy existed other than those of the Chinese scholar Sun Tzu and the Italian philosopher Niccolò Machiavelli (1469-1527). Sun Tzu lived in the fourth century b.c., and his book The Art of War, which first appeared in Europe in the 1770s, is widely available today. He and others like him came to prominence in China as war changed from small-scale family feuds to battles between states. Bands of itinerant scholars — Sun Tzu may have been the first consultant to write a book — peddled practical solutions, promising wealth and power to any who would adopt their complex schemes. Those whose clients prospered could do very well. A variety of unpleasant fates awaited those whose advice failed. They were liable to be pickled alive, boiled in oil, or torn apart by chariots — courses of action that some managers might wish were still available to them today!
The Art of Generals
In Europe at the dawn of the Enlightenment, however, scholars of strategy had other objectives. Flush with their success at explaining physical phenomena using scientific principles, theorists started to examine the art of successful generals using similar frameworks. Their first great exponent of strategy was Frederick the Great of Prussia (1712–1786), whose small, well-drilled armies dominated Central Europe. Under King Frederick, military strategy took on a chesslike quality that allowed the early writers to bolster their arguments with mathematical formulas and elaborate geometrical designs. It must have been a huge shock to them when, at the end of the 18th century, armies built on the Prussian model were crushed by Napoleon’s massed columns. New scholars scrambled to explain this phenomenon and to revise their principles.
Two of these interpreters of Napoleon were hugely influential in the development of the concept of strategy. The name of the first, the Prussian general Karl von Clausewitz (1780–1831), is still well known in military circles; the name of the second, the Swiss-French general Antoine-Henri de Jomini (1779–1869), is scarcely remembered. It is a tribute to the durability of von Clausewitz’s ideas that his famous work On War has recently been excerpted for business readers. In Clausewitz on Strategy: Inspiration and Insight from a Master Strategist (2001), consultants Tiha von Ghyczy, Bolko von Oetinger, and Christopher Bassford have done a fine job of condensing von Clausewitz’s massive, unfinished book and have coupled it with an excellent commentary.
Von Clausewitz’s greatest value to business readers is probably his philosophical attitude to the relationship between theory and practice. For him, “real” war was a dynamic process. Every situation was unique, and no theoretical system could possibly tell a commander what to do: “Theory should ... guide [the future commander] in his process of self-education, but it should not accompany him to the battlefield.” Von Clausewitz argues that theory can help us focus on and summarize a topic — to understand history — but theory is inherently descriptive rather than prescriptive. The editors of this book suggest that he regarded principles as rungs on the ladder of imagination — aids to judgment and intuition in what was fundamentally a creative activity. In von Clausewitz’s view, principles could not be foundational pillars for action.