Looking for a business role model? Look no further than Genghis Khan, says James Dunnigan, co-author of The Way of the Warrior: Business Tactics and Techniques from History's Twelve Greatest Generals (St. Martins Press), written with Daniel Masterson. The brutalizing Mongol of the twelfth century has something to tell you about running your business? That's right. And there's more where that came from.
Dunnigan points out that most of what a military leader does is executed off the battlefield, preparing for war or while immersed in the details of peacetime administration. But when leaders do go into battle, their ability to think clearly under the ultimate stress can change history. Generalship, in short, requires a broad range of skills not unique to war.
Directing large enterprises over vast areas in centuries past required extraordinary management skills, especially given the historic limitations of communications, logistics and infrastructure. Many of the abilities, habits and traits of those Dunnigan calls the "great captains" would have made them top business leaders today, he argues. With a little extrapolation to contemporary challenges, emulating those leaders could make you a captain of industry.
Dunnigan has written 18 books on military matters and lectures on war and history to various institutions, from the National Defense University in Washington, DC, to the CIA. He also knows about taking lessons from the battlefield and applying them to business. When he's not doing financial modeling for Wall Street, Dunnigan is working hard on his Web site (www.jimdunnigan. com) which serves to promote his war games and books.
Scott S. Smith: Most people aren't history buffs, so the initial reaction to your book must be, "What could Alexander the Great, who died in 323 B.C., possibly teach us about modern business?"
James Dunnigan: Well, what you find is that every great leader had a wide range of characteristics that made him successful. Many of these traits and behaviors were common among them, but each leader had his own style. Alexander's greatest strength was that he pursued systematic solutions to problems while always keeping the strategic vision in mind--paying attention to details to a degree rarely seen before or since. He knew that if he wanted to achieve his goal of displacing the Persians as masters of the world, he first needed to offset their advantage in having a massive fleet. He did this by taking over the ports so that the Persian fleet couldn't dock for supplies. The lesson: With a little bit of cleverness, even a dominant power can be blindsided.
Smith: Alexander inspired fierce loyalty among his soldiers. How?
Dunnigan: He mixed with the common soldiers and led them from the front into key battles. They knew he was courageous, not reckless. His risks were carefully calculated because he relied on thorough preparation through intelligence-gathering and making sure supplies were available. Perhaps his greatest skill was what is called "situational awareness," or the Ace Factor, the ability to size up situations promptly. These are valuable traits all business leaders could use.
Smith: OK, I can see Alexander, but Genghis Khan? Our image of the Mongols is of uncivilized nomads who were the human equivalent of the bubonic plague.
Dunnigan: Yes, they were ruthless, but it was a carrot-and-stick approach. They made it clear that it was either surren-der or extermination. A good manager knows when to be tough, even if it means attracting unwelcome attention from the Federal Trade Commission or the Justice Department.
But the Mongols didn't conquer most of the known world just by being savage; they were very well-organized and used remarkably efficient political and logistical techniques. Any one of these, updated to current circumstances, would make a company stronger.
For example, Genghis Khan mixed warriors from different tribes to weaken tribal loyalty and create warriors loyal to him. He organized the army so staff leaders could move easily from one unit to another. Speed was his most remarkable asset, the key to his victories. And he was flexible, whether in battle tactics or in adapting to new cultures.
Smith: You mention that Caesar's greatest strength was that he was a master communicator before mass media came along. Why was he effective?
Dunnigan: Caesar studied rhetoric at the best school of the time. He considered just the right words to use, and if he felt something might not be understood by his audience, he left it out. Instead of letting someone else tell his story, he wrote it himself. Plus he sponsored terrific games for the Roman people--you could call him the first user of a multimedia campaign.
Communication is the key to getting anything done. Ambiguity in what you say allows your enemies to speculate, as does saying nothing for fear of making a misstep. You need to keep your people informed, and when you send a message to an ally, always assume an enemy will see it, since alliances change.
Smith: What was Charlemagne's most outstanding characteristic from which today's managers can learn?
Dunnigan: Charlemagne had a knack for selecting smart people in areas he was weak in, like a successful founder of a company who manages to grow the firm to a huge size by fostering an atmosphere that attracts the wide variety of skills needed. He also created a government and legal bureaucracy that were responsive and adapted to local cultures.
Smith: Let's look briefly at some of the other warriors. Gustavus Adolphus was a tactical and technological innovator. Everyone wants to be, of course, but how?
Dunnigan: He and Douglas MacArthur were able to figure out what new ideas would work and what wouldn't. All the great captains observed how others used new technology before they tried it. It isn't innovative to be the first to use a new technology; it's innovative to be the first to make the technology do something really useful.
Smith: You mention that Frederick the Great paid twice what other countries paid to get the best soldiers. It's a great idea, but small companies usually can't pay as much as large companies. What are other ways great leaders attracted and kept top people?
Dunnigan: Military leaders usually offered their soldiers a piece of the conquered territory, and today many small companies compensate with equity. Once you have the best people, you keep them by handing out medals and promoting them as fast as possible. If you treat people well and offer them unique opportunities to grow and develop, one star employee can outperform several workers combined.
Smith: Like a small business, Frederick's Prussia was surrounded by many large and hostile countries, but it thrived. What was his secret?
Dunnigan: He was better organized and moved faster than his foes. He also learned from his mistakes. Likewise, there is an opening for small companies if they examine themselves more honestly than corporations, which tend to get arrogant. Frederick was also persistent, and you can overcome a competitive advantage by that simple principle.
Smith: You say the three things that set Ulysses S. Grant apart from other generals were his optimism, daring and his calmness when facing stress and risk.
Dunnigan: Grant wouldn't dwell on the negatives of a situation; he was solution-oriented. Too many other generals would prepare and prepare but were too afraid of the risks to do anything. Grant knew when the time for planning was done, and he took daring risks when he thought they were the best choices, such as the attack on Vicksburg and sending Sherman on the march into the South even though that cut him off from his supply lines.
Once, when Grant was writing an order, an artillery shell exploded overhead. He barely looked up; his calmness allowed him to remain in control of situations when other generals would have panicked.
Smith: Moving into this century, you cite Douglas MacArthur as one of the first to effectively use mass media because he was a military press liaison, yet he also got lots of negative ink. What are the lessons here?
Dunnigan: He knew what kind of story the media were looking for, and he gave them what they wanted. Unfortunately, some felt manipulated and this backfired.
Norman Schwarzkopf showed us how to do it right by giving briefings that were direct, simple, truthful and humorous. If you try to be clever and fool the press or the public, you'll get caught. Knowing the pitfalls and opportunities in the psychology of the press can make a big difference in how investors and customers perceive you and how successful you are in your public relations efforts.
Smith: You say George Patton's strength lay in his desire to know all he could about leading an army.
Dunnigan: There has probably never been a military leader who spent as much time studying his craft. Patton had a huge library of books on warfare, which he carefully studied. He also spent time talking to Allied officers about tactics. He visited tank factories to understand everything about tanks and got his private pilot's license when he realized aircraft were going to play an important role after World War I. Patton attributed part of his success to his knowledge of the French road system. Entrepreneurs should realize that if they do their homework, they'll leverage their assets.
Smith: What's the common lesson to be learned from all the great captains?
Dunnigan: They all had the ability to recognize their skills and then had the energy and persistence to use them. Many potential great captains held back out of fear or uncertainty, and thus never achieved greatness.
Scott S. Smith writes about business issues for a variety of publications, including Investor's Business Daily.