Refighting the Last War

It is 1918. It is three years into World War I. The armies of France, the United Kingdom, Russia, the United States, and ten other countries are battling the Central Powers; led by the German Empire, Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria, and the Ottoman Empire. The four-year battle was known as a war of attrition, owing to the central strategy of both sides of the conflict; outlast the enemy by making your opponents use more resources than they can afford to lose. Each side knew the number of soldiers they could enlist and train per year. Strategies were based on whether a tactic would exhaust the enemy’s weapons, ammunition, and manpower beyond their ability to replenish. The war became one of digging trenches and conducting head-on assaults on enemy positions.

World War I used what is known as the Assault Doctrine. Twelve-man rifle squads were divided into a squad leader, two scouts, a four-man fire section, and a five-man maneuver-and-assault section. This strategy allowed for locating the enemy, flanking him, and attacking under the safety of cover fire. Given that all combatants of the war were closely matched in warfare technology, however, a soldier’s only real chance for survival was to be drafted late into the war.

It is 1944. The Second World War has another year before a conflict that killed 85 million people and devastated 30 countries will end. At the beginning of WWII, the Assault Doctrine from the previous war was put into place. But, whereas WWI was fought across open fields, WWII was fought town to town, through thick hedgerows, and in ever-changing terrain. In World War I, a platoon leader could effectively guide his men to their greatest effect. In WWI, however, when a platoon was engaged in a firefight, the platoon leader found it nearly impossible to control the actions of his soldiers. WWII was also the first time an air force was used with decisive outcomes. It was also the first war to involved armored divisions and tanks to support ground troops. It wasn’t until the old tactics of WWI were abandoned that victory was achieved.

The Korean War, also known as The Forgotten War, lasted from 1950-1953. In Korean, virtually none of the military strategies developed in WWII could be brought to bear. The same held true of almost every military strategy in the wars to follow; Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Somalia. Leaders at the Pentagon claim that the greatest hindrance to victory is that America is always refighting the last war; using tactics that were effective only in a previous environment. And America is not the only country to face this challenge. It is only when military and political leaders have taken a step back and changed the rules and reinvented themselves, that victory was possible.

Presidential elections have also succeeded or failed based on a party’s ability to recognize if they were refighting the last war. Nixon wasn’t nearly as adept as Kennedy at using television to his advantage. Regardless of your politics, you have to admit that Kennedy had a face for TV, while Nixon had a face for radio. Kennedy certainly wasn’t the first president to appear on TV (that distinction belongs to Franklin Roosevelt), but Kennedy was the first to master the medium. Obama is considered the first president to master social media to gain political advantage. Trump and Twitter? Enough said. It always seems that presidential elections follow the same, predictable path until someone decides that they aren’t going to fight the current battle using tactics from the previous war.

Of course, the outcome of wars or political battles is far more complicated that the tactics I have listed, but it is surprising how often the answer to “why did we win?” or “why did we lose?” boils down to one simple element; the other side didn’t rely on yesterday’s strategies. But, even after the lessons learned over hundreds of years, trying a new strategy seems outside the capabilities or will of most of us. With all that is at stake in a war or a political fight, you can bet that any time someone suggested a strategy that was a bit out there, there were plenty of people who panicked; who said, “But the old way worked just fine.” It is precisely because there is so much as stake that old methods must be put under scrutiny. Mistake in war cost lives, mistakes in business cost livelihoods, so no strategy deserves blind trust. To follow old strategies simply because they are familiar is not only foolish, it is costly.

I personally experienced this mindset when I was asked to conduct a workshop for political strategists in Washington, DC. Because I teach communication skills, presentation, and the art of persuasion, it seemed a perfect match for those in public life. The workshop was a great success, with participants leaving saying that the new techniques I introduced were refreshing, as well as in line with the needs of their profession. My sales manager, who had arranged the workshop, scheduled many follow-up meetings; excited at the prospect of a calendar full of booking. When he called me the following week, I expected to hear great news. When I asked how the meetings went, he said, “Everyone loved you, but no one will hire you.” He explained, “They all said the same thing. They said your ideas are spot-on, but they are too new; too out of the ordinary. I was told by every attendee, ‘You will never go broke in DC by telling a candidate to wear the blue suit, white shirt, and matching tie.’ These people are more concerned about keeping their jobs than doing a better job.”

I wasn’t terribly disappointed, I wasn’t thrilled about DC anyway. What did disappoint me was the realization that the very people who should be the most interested in learning new ways of doing things are the most resistant to change. I suppose I was a bit naïve to expect otherwise, but we can all dream, can’t we? It is a wise business leader who examines the tactics of today and asks, “Am I refighting the last war?”

 

Stevie Ray is a nationally recognized corporate speaker and trainer, helping companies improve communication skills, customer service, leadership, and team management.  He can be reached at www.stevierays.org or stevie@stevierays.org.

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