“The moral is to the physical as three is to one”


Strategy is applied psychology. It requires craftiness, cunning, surprise, and deceit. These skills require a keen understanding of human nature, because they depend on distracting an opponent while maneuvering him into a weaker position so you can bring your own strengths to bear for greatest effect. Strategy is about exploiting the enemy’s vulnerabilities, especially psychological ones, while protecting your own.

Ultimately, in war, this means breaking the enemy’s will to fight, so you can impose your will on him. This is why morale, cohesion, and esprit de corps are critical. This is what moved Napoleon to assert that moral factors in war are much more important than physical ones. It is also why leadership is fundamental to crafting effective strategy and seeing it through to implementation.

In business, you have to create a strong morale and cohesion within your own enterprise while monitoring competitors for telltale signs of weakness.

The real definition of morale…and it’s more than just mood

Morale is the willingness of an individual, a team, or an organization to win and to succeed. There is a relationship to other personal and group factors such as mood and attitude, but it is a different beast. Morale is best seen as a grim determination to soldier on despite hardships, obstacles and failure.

When morale is high, organizations and individuals will keep focusing on a positive outcome. There is a hope and even an expectation that final victory and success will be attained. Thus, morale can survive even in the presence of a temporary mood of discouragement. However, if an atmosphere of defeat persists, then morale can quickly deteriorate to the point where only an extraordinary act of leadership, or luck, can reinvigorate it.

You need cohesion to win battles

Cohesion and esprit de corps are even more intangible. Where teamwork is built on the willingness of individual team members to subsume their own interests in favor of group interests, esprit de corps is built upon the willingness to sacrifice oneself, if needed, for the interests of the group. This is a level of commitment that few organizations in business achieve.

The common factor in both teamwork and esprit de corps is cohesion. The difference is one of degree rather than type. Cohesion is simply the degree to which individuals subordinate their own interests to those of the group. In teamwork, individuals are willing to work together to achieve a common goal. The level to which they are willing to sacrifice personal interests will determine the degree to which esprit de corps is a factor.

Well-led military units in combat are highly cohesive and are usually characterized as having strong esprit de corps. Poorly led units usually suffer poor cohesion and have low esprit. When this happens, units often disintegrate. A non-virtuous cycle of poor morale and even lower cohesion ensue. Consequently, military commanders zealously guard the morale and cohesion of their units, lest they fall apart under the strain of combat.

Here are some ways of building and maintaining high levels of morale, cohesion and esprit de corps that are relevant to business:

  • Develop a vision and mission for your strategy and communicate it to your team.
  • Exercise competent and exemplary leadership.
  • Admit mistakes and failures to improve your performance.
  • Mobilize your people to solve problems and to defeat threats, and overcome friction and resistance.
  • Care for your people so they know that you take their concerns and welfare seriously.
  • Monitor morale and cohesion of your team continuously.

Conversely, to defeat your competition, you must be relentless in seeking out ways to keep them off balance and to destroy their cohesiveness. A sure sign that a competitor is getting weaker is the converse of what you should be watching out for in your own business.

Here are key questions to ask as you assess your competitors’ willingness to fight and defend their turf, or to try to take yours.

  1. Are there frequent changes of mission and vision? Is the competitor trying one thing for a short period of time then another without necessarily committing to either one?
  2. Is the leadership detached from day to day operations? Are they seemingly detached from customers and key market segments? Do they appear unaware of important trends and innovations in the marketplace or the industry?
  3. Is the competitor failing to admit mistakes, or are they holding on to existing markets, products and services without regard to technological, economic, political and social change?
  4. Have employees and executives at the competitor seemingly resigned themselves to the status quo or to your own successes? Have they willingly given up territory to you or to other competitors?
  5. Are people jumping ship at your competitors? Are there leaks and whistle blowing? Has the senior management team been fighting in public? Are there work stoppages and labor unrest?

© 2010 Richard Martin. Reproduction and quotes permitted with proper attribution.

  1. sganda says:


    I like this post. Not sure if you have a military background yourself but you draw some great comparisons. There are some difficult lessons for leaders in these difficult times.


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