History is full of example of innovative tactics winning the day, sometimes against formidable odds. What lessons can business leaders today learn from the history of warfare? Plenty, explains Paul Sloane.

Let’s be clear, business is not war. But if you are operating in a fierce marketplace then it can feel like it. Many of the methods we use in our sales campaigns, marketing strategies and competitive tactics are based on military analogies.  So what lessons can business leaders today learn from the history of warfare? Here are some that seem particularly relevant.

David vs. Goliath – 1000 BC?

Goliath was a giant and the Philistine’s champion at man-to-man combat. David was a young shepherd boy. Goliath expected to overwhelm his opponent in a sword fight but David chose to fight on different terms. He defeated Goliath by using an unusual weapon, the sling, with pinpoint accuracy.

Lessons:  It is no use going up against someone who has an 8-ft spear with a 4-ft spear. You need a different weapon. If you are smaller you have to be agile and different. If your competitor is the giant in the market, you need a radical approach so that you can strike rapidly and accurately. This is what Direct Line did when they used telephone technology to sell car insurance directly while the major players were using brokers.

Battle of Crecy – 1346

The English army of about 14,000 men under Edward III had ravaged northern France. They were finally confronted on August 26, 1346 by an army of some 40,000 Frenchmen under Philip VI. Battles were normally fought by knights on horseback and the French, with such a numerical advantage, felt confident. But the English had a new and superior technology, the longbow.  Their archers were trained in rapid fire and could sustain a rate of over 10 arrows per minute. Each arrow could penetrate armor. It was the first time that such a mass volley of arrows had been used in warfare. The French attacked in waves and they were cut down relentlessly by the power, speed and range of their opponents’ archers.

Lessons: One of the best ways to beat an established competitor is with a new technology. Innovation can overcome a strong opponent. Focus your firepower on the target. Amazon used internet technology to directly address the needs of book buyers and to run rings around the established high street vendors.

Battle of Trafalgar – 1805

Traditionally, naval battles were fought by lining up two fleets in parallel line so that they could deploy the maximum firepower from their canons. At the battle of Trafalgar, Villeneuve, the French admiral, formed his fleet of 33 ships into a line. But Nelson did not line up in parallel. He split his 27 ships into two squadrons and attacked at right angles to the French line. In the hectic battle that ensued Nelson died but the British were victorious and established a naval supremacy that lasted over 100 years.

Lessons: If you do not have a superior force or superior technology then try a different tactic. Surprise your opponent with a fresh approach.  Virgin, Benetton and Body Shop are examples of businesses that used surprise tactics to disrupt incumbent market leaders.

First World War – 1914 to 1918

The scale of the slaughter of soldiers in World War I was appalling. Over 8 million military personnel died. The main tactic on the western front was to repeatedly attack strong defensive positions with waves of men. They were massacred. It was believed that with sufficient artillery bombardment and pure weight of numbers a breakthrough could be achieved.  But the way to overcome barbed wire defenses and machine gun posts is not with lines of infantrymen. What was needed was the rapid development and effective deployment of the tank.

Lessons: Effort, courage and hard work are not enough. If you are competing with a well-entrenched opponent who has a strong defensive position then you need a new technology or approach to achieve a breakthrough. A long war of attrition debilitates both sides. Retail banking was a stodgy business until Egg, First Direct and Cahoot came along to shake it up and take millions of accounts away from the big players.

Maginot line – 1940

The British and French high commands assumed that the new war with Germany would be similar to the First World War, with huge static armies facing each other. The French built a massive defensive line along the entire border between France the Germany, the Maginot line, consisting of enormous fortifications. But when the Germans attacked in May 1940 they did some lateral thinking. They used fast-moving armored divisions and paratroops. They swept through Holland and Belgium and around the Maginot line. The British and French were outmaneuvered and France fell in five weeks.

Lessons: Assuming that new contests will be similar to previous ones is dangerous. The best way to combat an opponent who has a strong defensive position and barriers to entry in a market is to go around those barriers and find a new way to the market. This is what Direct line, Amazon, Netscape and Easyjet did.

Battle of Britain – 1940

After the fall of France, the British retreated across the Channel, leaving most of their equipment behind. The German army, having raced across Europe was rampant while the British army was demoralized and under-equipped. The Germans planned an aerial assault followed by an invasion, and many thought that Britain would fall as quickly as France, Holland or Poland. But the British had some things that the others had not – the channel, the Spitfire, radar and Winston Churchill.  Churchill gave the people a vision, purpose and belief that enabled them to sustain the blitz, oppose the might of Germany and eventually triumph.

Lessons: In tough environments, winning CEOs are those who have a clear vision, can communicate it to their people and motivate them to achieve the goal. Sir Arnold Weinstock, Bill Gates and Jack Welch are recognized as this type of visionary leader.

Defeat of Hitler – 1945

After his great successes in the early part of the wa,r Hitler was convinced that he was a military genius and the German Wehrmacht could overcome any obstacle. When he attacked Russia in the summer of 1941, he was so confident of victory that there were no plans for a winter campaign; no winter coats for the soldiers and no winter oil for the tanks. He ignored the advice of his generals and pushed his forces down towards Stalingrad and then refused to allow them to withdraw or regroup when the communication lines became overextended. His arrogance and overconfidence built a barrier to criticism and meant that he never used the full talents of his team. Eventually Germany was overwhelmed by the weight of Russian, American and British forces.

Lessons: A narcissist CEO will lead the business to disaster. Plan a fallback scenario. Strong vision and belief are essential but a leader who blocks constructive criticism, ignores the input of his team and fails to build consensus is doomed. To mention them by name would be libelous but take your pick from the CEOs who have led mighty companies to disaster in recent times.

Paul Sloane was MD of Ashton-Tate and CEO of Monactive. He is the founder of Destination Innovation ( a consultancy that helps improve leadership and innovation.