Three learning points for managers from “On Grand Strategy”

You wouldn’t think that an academic book on grand strategy would have many lessons for managers.  But John Lewis Gaddis’ On Grand Strategy does.  He is a Pulitzer prize winning academic at Yale.  He weaves a strong story with history and analysis.  There are many points of interest but I want to focus on three which will help managers of many types

Gaddis running a seminar at the US Naval War college: Pic under CC from the college


Fox or hedgehog?

The first is are you a fox or a hedgehog?  Foxes pursue many ends, often unrelated and often contractionary.   Hedgehogs relate everything to a single central vision.  Foxes thrive in turbulent times: they have trouble dealing with stability.  They often see more pitfalls than advantages and can be paralysed by indecision.  Hedgehogs go relentlessly after their objectives, or rather objective.  They are in great trouble in turbulent times and thrive in stability.

The point of this observation is: realise which one you are; realise which strategy best suits the times, and act accordingly.

Ends are infinite; means finite

The second is that ends, what you are trying to do, can be infinite, but the means of getting them are always finite.   Too many managers do not have the means to get what they want but go ahead anyway.  Just think of all of those failed IT projects where it seems as if the technology would fill the void, and failed to do so.

Manage polarities like Abe

Lincoln: he kept time on his side

The third is to manage polarities.  The gradual expansion of the edges of a project edging into what looks like chaos is often rewarded.  You may have a compass of where you want to get to but you also need a map to avoid the cliffs, the swamps and the insurmountable mountains.   Abe Lincoln, who Gaddis says was the greatest US president, managed the polarities in his political life.  A biographer of Abe says he was strong willed without being willful, righteous without being self-righteous and moral without being moralistic.


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