One Skill That Every Visionary Leader Must Learn: What Hannibal, Napoleon and Clausewitz Can Teach Us About Strategic Intuition



Image: NPR.ORG

There is one skill each visionary leader needs to master.  It’s synthesis.  The ability to connect the dots.

Steve Jobs famously noted, “You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future.”

What does it take to come up with a brilliant insight? How do you find solutions to your most pressing challenges?

Professor William Duggan, the author of the bestselling book Strategic Intuition, writes that, in a nutshell, strategic intuition is made of a wide combination of factors, including deep knowledge of the subject matter, understanding of the historical context, and the ability to place disparate facts together and assemble them into a whole.

 Strategic intuition solves a mystery through masterfully connecting unrelated pieces of information into one single answer.

As we now realize, the astonishing ideas of military geniuses, mathematicians, business leaders and famous politicians come from the combination of existing information that was internally processed to produce new insight. 

 Be it Alexander the Great, Da Vinci, Newton, Napoleon or Einstein, these great leaders and scientists discovered pieces of precious information and synthesized them in original new ways.

What Do Messi, Neymar And Northern Virginia’s Best Plumber Have in Common?

But beware of subtle differences, warns Duggan. While everyone at least once in his or her life has experienced that gut feeling called intuition, there is also such a thing as “expert intuition.” For instance, you surely have seen examples of expert intuition in great sportsmen and craftsmen. Consider Messi or Neymar, the World Cup superstars of Argentinian and Brazilian soccer. In Brazil they call these players “craque,” the super masters of the game who can decide the fate of any match.

Expert intuition is based on experience and swift reaction and recognition of patterns. It happens within a short time frame. It’s always based on considerable experience and mastery of skills. Neymar and Messi know perfectly well where the ball and defender are going to be in an instant of a second. And they deliver each and every time.

Or look at the most amazing plumber I’ve ever met, a guy named Abe. Wearing grey overalls, and spotting pencil mustache, Abe is fast and efficient.  He looks in my basement, and immediately exclaims: “Look at this pipe here. The guy who came before me had no idea what he was doing.” Like David Copperfield, he takes out his beaten toolbox as if it’s a magic box, gracefully pulls out the instruments and fixes the pipe in no time. “I’m trained as a civilian engineer, but I love having my own business,” says Abe. “When you need an expert, call me.”

Just like Messi, Abe quickly assesses the situation by looking at familiar patterns and seeing where the problem lies. Now that’s what you call expert intuition.

Finding Your Elegant Solution

Dr. Duggan argues that strategic intuition differs from both “gut” intuition and expert intuition. It comes much slower, but it always connects the dots. It can come in the middle of the night and with a flash of genius deliver you a solution for the long-standing challenge you’ve been “sleeping on” for a while. Most of the time it happens in new situations, says Duggan.

Our mind works extra hard to analyze a problem from all possible angles, and you need to be open to allow other auxiliary information and cases to enter your mind to create a unique solution. 

In other words, strategic intuition does not equal the linear thinking which sets the direction from point A to point B.

Strategic intuition always produces what Matthew May, the author of The Elegant Solution, calls “the singular and deceptively simple idea with huge impact that lies beyond the enormous complexity of the challenging business problems we all face in our companies.

When your mind surfs its wave of strategic intuition, the flash of insight comes like a gigantic lightning bolt to melt the pieces in one clear map of action. Suddenly you see a complete picture – all at once, like the puzzle your daughter just assembled from various unconnected pieces.

Your brain has amazing capacity. Imagine it as a mega library with terrabytes of information on each shelf, and perfect labeling in place. Think of strategic intuition as that kind librarian who redirects you toward your “aha” moment.

Against The Odds: Learning From Hannibal’s Strategic Victory

Be it a scientific breakthrough, military victory or business solution, the “aha” moment is worth gold. Consider the Battle of Cannae. Back in 216 BC when Hannibal, the great Carthaginian general and one of the greatest military geniuses the world ever conceived, faced the enormous challenge of battling the 90,000-strong Roman army, he needed strategic intuition to survive. The Roman army at the time was the most advanced military machine in the world. Roman legions exuded stellar training, fine military techniques and superb fighting spirit. The Romans decided to crush Hannibal’s army with overwhelming force. Rome’s best generals, officers and soldiers faced a seemingly motley crew of Spaniards, Gauls, Numidians and Carthaginians, half the size of the Roman army. An easy victory was within reach.

Yet when Hannibal assessed the battlefield, his flash of insight connected his knowledge of Roman strategy thought and his experience that Roman generals tended to be overconfident. Hannibal came up with a truly elegant solution. He used the astonishing numbers of the Roman army to his advantage by leading the superior Roman infantry force into a trap. He placed its less capable force in the center, and directed them to slowly retreat sucking the massive Roman forces into the internal bubble. Confident in their victory, the Roman troops took the bait, and quickly advanced crushing Hannibal’s infantry. It was too late when Roman generals noticed that such a swift advance negatively affected their formations. The troops lost cohesion, were squeezed and surrounded by Hannibal’s cavalry and effectively defeated.The Battle of Cannae became synonymous with total victory.

What helped Hannibal, Napoleon, Suvorov, and other great military commanders defeat much superior forces? Luck? Errors of enemy generals? Territorial advantage?

Four Strategic Points Every Leader Should Explore 

Duggan suggests that we study the works of Carl von Clausewitz. In his classic work On War, Clausewitz wrote about strategic intuition and laid out four criteria:

1. Examples from history. Strategic intuition draws on the knowledge and experience of all of history far and wide, all stored in the shelves of the mind.

2. Presence of mind refers to a clear mind, clear of all expectations and previous ideas of what you might do or even what your goal is.

3. The flash of insight. In a free mind selected elements from various examples come together in a new combination.

4. Resolution or resolve and determination. You not only need to see what to do but also be ready to do it. The flash of insight carries with it the force of action that propels you forward, but you need the resolve to push on and make your strategy happen.”

Duggan argues that Napoleon Bonaparte, for example, perfectly understood that the key to your strategy is your ability to be flexible and use your expertise and knowledge of history to your advantage in every given moment. He cites Napoleon, who said: “I never truly was my own master but was always ruled by circumstances. The greater one is the less will he must have as he depends on events and circumstances. Instead of seeking to control circumstances, I obeyed them. I bent my policies to accord with the unforeseen shape of events.”

In my view the second point of Clausewitz is the most precious piece of advice in the digital age – the ability to be present in the now. Today your presence of mind is worth more than gold. To quantify what you’ve already experienced: the average American consumes 34 gigabytes of information per day.

As Eric Schmidt, ex-CEO of Google noted: “Between the dawn of civilization through 2003, about 5 exabytes of information was created. Now, that much information is created every 2 days.”

Having presence of mind means staying flexible and receptive, just like Hannibal’s army. Prepare to be fluid. Or as Bruce Lee put it, “Be water, my friend”.

“Make It Your Art”: Simple Steps to Nurture Strategic Intuition At Your Business or Non-Profit

Every non-profit or business leader should be able to synthesize information and stitch pieces together to form new solutions.

 Still again and again, we see top managers who follow the beaten path. Yes, the standard formula does produce near-term predictable results. However, ask yourself: is this how my organization will deal with rising competition? Are we just trying to protect our niche, or do we want to go farther and create “blue oceans”?

Compare yourself with visionary leaders of today. Amazon, Tesla, Grameen Bank, Charity: Water and Twitter went beyond and connected the dots based on deep understanding of customer feedback, creation of powerful logistical/technological support and reading society’s megatrends.

How, then, are you supposed to connect the dots? You can start from some simple steps to nurture your and your organization’s strategic intuition.

1. When faced with a challenge, or looking for an elegant solution for your business or non-profit, research what your top 5 competitors are doing to solve a similar problem.Is it a specific marketing campaign that set the tone and wowed the customers? Or was it an innovative strategy that created a win-win solution?

2. Don’t limit yourself to researching just your current competition. Go back in history and across different industry fields to learn how industry legends made their companies successful. Learn their bold moves and apply their management strategies to your situation.

I asked Tony Hsieh, founder of Zappos, how he was able to connect the dots so successfully repeatedly, and Tony said that there is no substitute for meeting many people from different backgrounds and constantly reading various books and articles. “I think most people like being creative. And I think of being open-minded as a form of creativity.”

3. Foster a listening culture. Synthesis requires understanding the whole picture. It requires that every participant of a particular meeting is able to intelligently comment on discussed ideas and provide vital links between disparate views. Synthesis demands good listening skills and asks for your undivided attention. Ask your meeting participants to experiment with leaving their devices aside. See what happens when you have a room full of engaged listeners!

4. Encourage a creative exchange of ideas. Surely, your organization has its own Elon Musks and Jack Dorseys. All you need to do is to create a healthy environment where every idea is appreciated and discussed, where listening and prototyping become the springboards for successful initiatives, where everyone with an innovative knack is appreciated and valued.

Matthew May suggests, “whatever your work, make it your art, your canvas, and your sandbox. All sorts of good things happen when you do.”

Are you ready?

So, after you’ve thoroughly researched what other greats in your industry did in a similar situation, considered parallels in other industries, listened, and fostered the creativity of everyone around you, you should be ready to unleash your resolve. There should be nothing in your way. Because before you know it, your mind or your team will have a solution for you.

What dots have you connected today?


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