This is an essay from my popular 100 Days of Leadership Series. If you would like to learn how to become a leader in your organization, your community, or in your personal life, sign up here to receive these short essays directly to your inbox.
“Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory, tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.”Sun Tzu
In Herodotus’ Histories, you’ll find a story about the Spartans at the height of their influence. Then known as Lacedaemonians, they sent soldiers to a town called Tegea to enslave the local population, as they had done with several other Greek city-states. The Spartan soldiers were so sure of themselves, that they brought with them fetters, which they would use on the Tegeans once they achieved victory. But the Tegeans won the battle and enslaved the Spartan soldiers to labor in the fields, bound by the very fetters they had brought with them.
This episode is a microcosm of the greater Spartan story. They were such headstrong people, determined and confident to the point where they would not and could not consider the consequences of failure. They were intelligent, wealthy, and disciplined, yet they lacked cleverness, foresight, and the ability to change course in most situations. Over time, while their rivals became sea-faring peoples to accommodate their growing populations, Sparta remained on land. They resorted to conquering more land, and in doing so, became a large, stationary target for their more agile enemies. To offset their lack of mobility as well as threats from within, they cultivated a military culture so rigid that it simply could not allow them to think strategically. Their hubris and inflexibility led to their defeat at Tegea and would foreshadow their collapse 200 years later. In many ways, Sparta became a victim of the chains they used on others.
Today, you cannot afford to think like a Spartan. The world moves far too fast and changes far too quickly for you to become locked in your ways. Just look at how fast information flows. 2,500 years ago, it took weeks to get news across the Mediterranean. Now, information travels around the world seven times per second. To lead well today means that you must prioritize agility, flexibility, and the ability to think strategically. Don’t be a Spartan. Hone your strategic mind:
Learn the lessons of history
Too many people live life by the seat of their pants. They make decisions as they go, ignorant of the unintended consequences each decision might have on other parts of their life. When you begin to see life as a latticework of interwoven decisions, you’ll begin to reduce your own unforced errors—and you can only truly reach that point once you’ve embraced the lessons of history. When you make a mistake, don’t wallow in misery. All the answers you need are now at your fingertips. Experience may be the best teacher, but by itself, it is a brutal lecturer. Read the classics and learn from the mistakes others have made so you don’t have to learn the hard way.
Learn the lessons of your mind
Learn about how your own mind works. Study cognitive biases and how they affect your decision-making abilities. Read up on game theory, and identify how these ideas apply to different situations. The more you train your mind in peacetime, the less you’ll bleed in wartime.
Never lose strategy in a sea of tactics. Most people play chess like they play life—with no strategy, and resort to a specific set of tactics over and over again. As we learned from Sparta, you might get lucky with that approach in the short run, but it never serves you in the long run. Chess is a fantastic training ground that forces you out of your tunnel vision if you genuinely want to improve. Its riskless, iterative style allows you to test out and develop your mind’s flexibility. Pascal said, “chess is the gymnasium of the mind.” Build a strategic mind. Play chess.
To lead well, you need to develop remarkable vision. Strategic thinking requires you to see around corners and several steps ahead of everyone else. It is critical that you take every opportunity to hone your strategic mind. Accept that the world is always changing. Keep yourself adaptable and never bet on stability or permanence. While everyone else is trying to make sense of the world that’s passing them by, you’ll already have your next three moves planned out. While everyone bemoans the steady march of progress and technology, you can adapt and adjust for the future. Become rigid in your ways like the Spartans, and you’ll be tethered to the fields you set out to conquer.
Become a Better Leader
The world is starved of principled leadership. I’m writing to help you step up and step into that void.
This free email series will cover every aspect of principled leadership, from personal to organizational leadership, to navigating the muddy waters of poor leadership.
Sign up for 100 Days of Leadership
Enter your email, and you’ll receive a series of hard-earned, time-tested, practical principles that will make you a better leader, or help you become a leader.