By Richard Martin, President, Alcera Consulting Inc.

I’m preparing a new speech titled “How to Use Military Wisdom to Win Business Battles.” It’s obviously based on my new book, Brilliant Manoeuvres. I can focus on many aspects of the applicability of military wisdom to business, but in this particular instance I’ve chosen to speak about motivation and leadership.

I’ve really been giving a lot of thought to how to express the essence of military wisdom in the most succinct manner possible, one that is applicable across the widest range of situations and that is relevant to business and organizational management in general. Naturally, the essence of military wisdom must apply to strategy, tactics, leadership, organizational dynamics, and many other things in between.

To me, the essence of military wisdom is encapsulated in two fundamental principles. The first is the need to select and focus relentless on an overriding objective. The second is to follow to the greatest extent possible the ‘path of least resistance.’ Let’s look at the latter one this month and we’ll come back to the first one in the December newsletter.

What is the path of least resistance, and why do we need to shape our actions in conformity with that principle? In the simplest terms, it is to ‘go with the flow.’ In all our undertakings, we should allow our plans, actions, and reactions to be shaped by the lay of the land, by the natural course of events and not try to fight against gravity and human nature. This is why the famous Chinese military strategist Sun Tzu said, “Military tactics are like water; for water in its natural course runs away from high places and hastens downward.” He also said, to “adopt formlessness.” In other words, we must be like water, and follow the effects of gravity, but we must also shape ourselves to the reality of the situation we are in. So just as water has no definite shape, we must also be ready to conform to the realities of our conditions.

In business strategy, this boils down to, if at all possible, avoiding taking on competitors frontally. This means finding ways to stake out new positions in terrain that is not currently occupied by competitors. It means that a company must be willing to let competitors dominate in their existing markets while at the same time outflanking them or even bypassing them completely to establish new products and services that will draw their customers away. In this process, we see that the best competitive strategy is one that favours the indirect approach, avoiding the competition where it is strong while exploiting their weaknesses through one’s own strengths. This goes with the flow, because it naturally reinforces customers’ behavior, by allowing them to freely choose one’s new products and services over those of the competition.

In the area of organizational dynamics and leadership, we often try to take a frontal approach, pitting our big guns as leaders against the resistance of our followers. We try to assault them with rewards and punishments, or even to ingratiate them by taking a passive or even laissez faire approach. We know that this doesn’t work as effectively as trying to leverage and work with the grain of human nature. Instead, we try to swim against the current of individual intrinsic motivation and the natural tendencies of personal satisfaction, morale, and teamwork.

We need to take the same type of ‘strategic’ approach with our followers and in our organizations as we do with new products and services, where we follow the path of least resistance by outflanking competitors’ strengths to offer our strengths to customers. We need to recognize that rewards and punishments, what Dan Pink has called “Motivation 2.0” in his latest book, Drive, can only go so far in motivating people to perform beyond expectations. In fact, in his review of the latest motivation research, it’s now apparent that rewards and punishments, the kind of tit for tat transactions that underlie more traditional forms of leadership, are only really effective when dealing with highly routine or mundane situations.

In situations that demand individual initiative, teamwork, massive participation, high morale, and creative solutions, we need to focus on building and leveraging the intrinsic motivation that is inherent in everyone. We now know, through psychological research, and what military leadership has repeatedly demonstrated over the years: that rewards and punishments only go so far when it comes time to drawing the best out of people. It is through transformational leadership that we can truly break down interpersonal resistance and follow the path of least resistance.

Transactional leadership is like a head on assault against an entrenched enemy. It appears to be the fastest way to victory, but it’s actually the least effective and most costly in time and resources. Transformational leadership is akin to a flanking or even a bypass manoeuvre, not in the sense of trying to outwit followers, but rather in being like water that is flowing over ground, avoiding that which resists, and hastening towards that which is yielding.

© 2012 Richard Martin. Reproduction and quotes permitted with full and proper attribution.

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