How Leaders Plan and Win

September 24, 2023

I have repeatedly made the case in these articles that it is not the job of a leader to tell other people what to do. Rather, effective leadership means generating enthusiasm and buy-in for what needs to be done. For some, that’s a big pill to swallow, but let’s imagine that you take a leap of faith and try it. Now what? Do you just let your teams wander off and do whatever the heck they feel like? 

Let me say this as clearly as I’m able to: no, no, and no. Not at all. Not in the least.

Your organization — assuming you’re not running a charity for your employees — probably has some top-level strategic goals you’re trying to accomplish. You want to sell socks, build the latest innovative AI system, fix the climate crisis, etc. Whatever it is, you need your teams aligned to a common goal. And to do this, you need to give them a plan, assign them tasks, measure their progress and their productivity, write up reports, have status meetings… right?

Again, no. No. No. You can do much better.

There is a fine art to giving teams the greatest possible freedom to do their best work while at the same time keeping them aligned to a common strategic goal. While this might sound like some crazy new fad that a bunch of consultants came up with, it’s actually very, very old — from the mid-nineteenth century in fact. What’s more, it has been used quite effectively by military forces in Europe and the United States, so chances are it might just work at scale in your organization as well. 

The name for this art is a German word: Auftragstaktik. It was the brainchild of Helmuth von Moltke the Elder, who took command of the Prussian Army in 1866 until it became the German Army a few years later, largely on the strength of his efforts. Seriously. It is almost impossible to underestimate just how much von Moltke shaped the history of Europe.

Before von Moltke took over, the Prussian army had not fought a major war for more than forty years. They had a proud military history from the previous century, when Frederick the Great introduced reforms like merit-based promotion and intense training and discipline regimes for his troops. This is where we get the stereotype of the goose-stepping German soldier. The Prussians of the 1700s were a powerhouse in Europe right up until Napoleon shellacked them with a vast citizen’s army that prioritized butt-kicking above goose-stepping. The soul-searching that ensued gave us, among other things, Clausewitz’s dense treatise On War.

There were a number of other innovations in the mid-nineteenth century that made waging war more almost impossibly difficult for the underdog. More accurate rifles and artillery had a tendency to chew up any troops that attempted to form tidy ranks in the middle of a battlefield (c.f., Pickett’s ill-fated charge in the Battle of Gettysburg). Military leaders were beginning to discover the need for trench warfare, as any troops taking up entrenched positions were almost impossible to move.

This was the situation von Moltke found himself taking command of. He had a demoralized army from a European backwater in an age where old-school tactics simply didn’t work any more. He needed his army up and active as soon as possible. In an era where entrenchment and defense were favored tactics, he had to find a way to move fast to repel enemies many times his size. And he succeeded, defeating first Austria and then France: two of the largest empires in Europe at the time.

von Moltke’s innovation was to realize that trying to win a war by giving detailed orders to all his troops was a waste of time and energy. His most famous saying was “No plan of operations extends with certainty beyond the first encounter with the enemy’s main strength” (usually paraphrased as “No plan survives contact with the enemy.”). Rather than give his officers and troops a set of detailed orders and plans, von Moltke issued high-level directives that told him his intended end result. He focused on strategy — the “what” and the “why.” He then expected his subordinates to tell him how they intended to achieve this goal. His troops could even disobey direct orders if they felt this is what they needed to do in order to succeed.

In doing this, the General was able to have his cake and eat it too. He had complete strategic alignment from troops who were completely empowered to think for themselves on the battlefield. His adversaries, on the other hand, were still burdened with the notion that leadership means spelling out detailed instructions for everyone and everything. Faced with an army that could think and act on its own initiative, these adversaries barely stood a chance.

I think we can all agree that this is not exactly a recipe for sloppy anarchy.

von Moltke was also a huge proponent of optionality. He won by constantly assessing and reassessing the day-to-day reality on the battlefield, and his subsequent strategies always took into account the current situation. It’s a sad irony of history that his son was saddled with the inestimably stupid Schlieffen plan, with its detailed Rube-Goldberg-like timeline of events that all had to fall into place perfectly in order to succeed. The failure of this plan during the First World War (not to mention all the horrors that ensued) might have been avoided had German leaders been better at absorbing what von Moltke tried to teach them. Less dramatically but no less certainly, modern business leaders who enact huge, ambitious, detailed multi-year plans are setting themselves up to fail. It is much more efficient and effective to train an organization to respond with lightning-fast reflexes than it is to have a few executive brains try to do the thinking for everyone.

There are a number of great books that can show you how to put von Moltke’s methods into practice. One famous example is David Marquet’s Turn This Ship Around, where he demonstrates how he transformed one of the worst submarines in the US fleet into a phenomenal top performer. Another book that I think is even better is Stephen Bungay’s The Art of Action, all the more so because he uses von Moltke and Clausewitz as touchstones to teach leaders how to align an organization to a strategy. The biggest takeaway from this book is “never fall prey to the temptation of replacing clarity with detail.”

While it is one thing to read about these methods, however, it is quite another thing to turn them into your day-to-day reality. And another thing after that to teach a new way of working to your whole organization. I can help you internalize these skills, as I have done for many, many leaders. Press the button below to get some time on my calendar and let's discuss how I can help you.

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