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Leadership / Lessons

The Entrepreneurial Lessons I Learned Growing up Amid Civil War

War isn't the best analogy for business, but there are lessons you can draw from the battlefield.
The Entrepreneurial Lessons I Learned Growing up Amid Civil War
Image credit: Sergey Sheshnev | EyeEm | Getty Images
- Guest Writer
CEO of Apttus
5 min read

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Ever heard a war metaphor in a business meeting? Who hasn't? Go get 'em, troops. Flank the enemy, attack their resources and try not to incur too much collateral damage. Turn on a film, fast forward to any boardroom scene and every line of dialogue will drip with lines like these. It's simple to imagine your company as an army, or your products as weapons, and that can have value. In reality, there is no comparison, and the horrors of war will always outweigh the benefits of a business analogy. However, are there real takeaways you can apply to your own business? I say yes, emphatically.

Related: The Vietnam War Is History But Teaches a Lesson Every Leader Must Still Learn

I'm no soldier. But, I am a survivor of war. I grew up all over Africa and my family found itself in the midst of a Civil War during my formative years. My brother and I practiced rowing as shells dropped around us, and more often than not our playgrounds were littered with battlefield debris. My brother once said that going through those experiences can be very motivating, and powerful. Nothing in the future was going to be difficult after these experiences, he said. We'd have the courage to be leaders.

It's not a history I discuss often, but it is interesting to think back on the lessons and tactics those experiences have instilled into our organization, helping us to build a culture of corporate warriors. I've included a few of them below.

The charge

You won't find many war films or battle scenes that don't feature a dramatic charge, a full-frontal assault. There's a reason for that: It bloody works. The most pristine, foolproof defenses can be rendered immediately useless in the presence of a charging enemy. In both business and battle, a direct confrontation forces fast decision-making, with everything on the line. Often it can cause an opponent to run, scattering to the wind. It puts an unavoidable goal on the table for your own troops: Push forward or fail utterly. This gives them a focus; it puts the spear in their hand and sharpens it. An effective charge puts your strengths on display and leaves weakness behind.

Related: Investors Are Your War Partners, Not Your Beer Buddies

Not long ago, my organization, Apttus, was faced with a difficult situation. One of our competitors was acquired by a much larger company, which promised to snap up market share quickly. We honed in on our true market opportunity of providing middle office financial solutions to the mid-to-large enterprise. We quickly narrowed our focus, dedicated all resources to this specific area and went all-out. We charged, and ultimately, we won.

Supply and demand

As CEO and a founding member of this company, once in a while I'm attributed the somewhat grandiose descriptor of "entrepreneur." In the literal sense it's true; I have created a business. However, I think back to my time in Africa and realize that I wasn't simply born with this attribute. It was made in the poverty-stricken, battle-torn world I grew up in, where "supply and demand" were the only laws that mattered.

As a youth, I scavenged for mechanical tools and auto parts constantly, searching every corner of every field. I learned quickly that each bit of scrap could, under the right circumstance, hold immense value. As supplies dwindled and operational vehicles became rare and more difficult to repair, I could support my family by selling scavenged parts and even building a few motorcycles myself.

Related: 5 Veterans Share Their Tips for Successfully Transitioning From Service to Entrepreneurship

The principles of this success are important for any business leader. Anyone could have come along and picked up a gear here, a chain there and sold it off. But, there they were, waiting for me. I recognized that, sooner rather than later, those parts would demonstrate their value. They'd fill a niche that few anticipated being so important. That's the same mentality that creates successful companies. Often, those that are truly great offer products or services that, at the time, few acknowledged as valuable. The trick is in having the foresight, remaining patient and picking up all the necessary pieces to put the company in an enviable position that is years ahead of competitors.

The value of family

In the Rhodesian Civil War, my father stood strong for our family. He protected and guided us.

In business, the definition of family extends beyond your own blood. Create a team of your own and have them fight for you, for each other and for the success of everyone involved. It won't be long until they've forged a genuine bond, and that loyalty can help your company compete and grow.

Standing together, shoulder to shoulder, your team will become its own family. Going through the ups and downs of competition, of extreme growth, of innovation itself, any kind of business evolution will bring your team closer together. Embrace that mentality. Challenge your team to face down their enemies. Not only will they come out of the experience stronger, they'll do so as a team, ready to sacrifice and build together, as fighters. You can serve as the leader of that group, and they will look to you to show the bravery and mettle of any battlefield leader. Show no fear, and together it's possible to create a culture of warriors, set to take over the world, or at least dominate the competition.

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