We’ve all heard of Waterloo. A battle where Napoleon stood against two armies. The British led by Wellington and the Prussians, led by Blucher. History teaches us that this battle changed the course of European history and delivered a hundred years or relative peace and quiet on the continent. What we may not know is the circumstances in which the victory was sealed. In the short version, Napoleons fate is sealed by Wellingtons military genius and timely arrival of the Prussian forces on the battlefield. Though, like most things in life — it was considerably more complicated and although lot of it came down to luck — it could easily be recast into a battle between those who acted and those who waited.
Waterloo wasn’t just one battle, it was a series of skirmishes and battles that ran the course of four days. The French Army had the statistical and experience advantage. All they needed to do was keep both the British and the Prussian armies separated — and they managed to do that for most of the four days. In fact, several days into the campaign, Napoleon was so confident, news of his victory over the Prussians had already kicked off celebrations in Paris. So how did it all go so wrong for Napoleon?
Here’s where action versus inaction comes into the picture. Rather than being a hands-on commander Napoleon preferred to delegate and issue orders from a distance. There’s nothing wrong with this however this tends to work best when you have a level of experience with your subordinates. Not so well with a structure that is unfamiliar with your directions. In the days leading up to the final confrontation at Waterloo he entrusted key tasks to Marshal Ney whom even though was extremely experienced, the best of the best in his own words, failed to understand the orders he was given and chose to wait. This unintentionally gave the British Allies numerous opportunities to reinforce and re-assemble. Ney could have changed the entire balance of the campaign through the capture of the main roads at Quatre Bras, but he waited and did nothing. His inaction would have enormous ramifications in the coming days. Ney wasn’t the only one to misunderstand his orders. Marshal Grouchy was sent to route the retreating Prussians and block their ability to join the British forces. Due to some overly flowery ambiguous language used in the directions sent from Napoleons stronghold at La Belle Alliance, Grouchy spent several days wandering around, waiting for the next order without actually engaging the retreating Prussians — leaving a direct path that would get the Prussians back in the fight and spell catastrophe for the French army.
Contrasted completely to Napoleon was Wellington. His lead from the front management style had him back and forth between the lines of the battle seeing for himself what was happening and reacting and acting accordingly. He certainly wasn’t loved by his soldiers, unlike Napoleon whose army had an almost fanatical belief in his talents, but they sure did respect him. Most importantly however Wellingtons style was doing as much as it was preparation and execution. The important part about Wellington and his subordinates were their willingness to do something in the moment. None of them were absolutely sure of what was happening on other parts of the battlefield but they sure as hell weren’t shy of taking matters into their own hands once the melee began.
It wasn’t the first time that doing was the friend of the English army. When King Henry V led the English to Victory at Agincourt it certainly didn’t look good on paper. The English army was severely outnumbered and had none of the technology that the French had. A gambling man would have likely hesitated to put money on an English victory. This was another clear case of doing! Henry V may not have had any choice but to stand and fight. He had to do something. This was do or die stuff. History tells us that it was the Archers and their longbows that won the day and overcome the French nobleman and knights but what it doesn’t tell us is why the archers were there. Was it because they were the most effective weapon against thousands of armoured knights or because they were cheap? Henry V couldn’t afford a large army of armoured soldiers and Knights and opted for the numbers that cheaper archers could deliver. Weather, inaction and French delays caused by squabbling warlords and generally poor leadership on the side of the French would deliver the victory to the English — but the fact the battle took place in the first place was a result of Henry Vs action and the actions on the day give him a rather unexpected, but well needed victory.
The examples of historical battles are probably a little over the top in comparison to everyday business goals and objectives, but they allow you to use history to illustrate some lessons in more interesting ways. It’s unlikely thousands of people may die as a result of your actions, or the world will change unrecognisably but there is some striking lessons in leadership and management to be taken from examples we find in history.
Like the military organisations of history modern business can’t afford to be inactive. From my experience I can tell you for sure that action always trumps inaction when it comes to making decisions, creating the conditions for transactions, revenue generation or evening stopping yourself from becoming a victim of friendly fire.
In 2007 I was Managing Director for the South East Asia and Korean territories for a large European based publisher, Atari (Infogrames). The company without much warning, advised that its distribution business (essentially all offices outside of Lyon) would be sold to Namco Bandai. The process was relatively quick, and during this process we were directed that under no circumstances were we to contact Namco Bandai in our regions — not unusual in a complex negotiation. Once the deal was done, we were free to make contact and Namco Bandai were fairly surprised to hear from us, since they didn’t realise that there was offices and staff in South east Asia and Korea. They could have easily shut us down and moved on, but we had other ideas. We went on the offensive on all fronts and pitched up hard for their products with forecasts that were extremely aggressive. We opened up an office in Korea where there was none. We engaged the board, middle management and the handlers appointed to decide our fate. Our lobbying efforts culminated in a board meeting in Tokyo where I was tasked to present our organisations qualifications. Our positive action offensive won the day and the offices were allowed to stay. In fact, in the case of Korea they shut down their own office and we got to use their furniture in our new office.
Like any multifaceted problem there are a lot of angles. Wellington famously said that documenting a battle is like writing the history of a ball (as in dance), meaning that everyone who attends has a different experience. Some have a great time and some not so. Some meet their future spouses, and some don’t. The same can be said with any difficult negotiation or complicated business deal or project. Everyone has a different perspective and recollection as to how it played out. What everyone can and should agree on is that action is always the constant when a positive outcome is achieved. Action increases the likelihood of opportunities to present themselves. Action increases the probability of your opponents or detractor’s acquiescence. Action is the charmed ingredient that tips the advantage toward the eventual benefactor.
So next time you ever feel inclined to wait for a change in conditions, for a better time to act or that ambiguity is your friend, stop and think of Napoleon. Then make sure you and your team are doing and controlling the tempo of events unfolding around you.