Fortune Favors the Offensive: 5 Principles of speed and aggression from history’s greatest generals

One of the great regrets of my life is not having served in the military. I’ve become painfully aware of my lack of service since moving to the D.C. area, where it feels like everyone is either active duty or retired military or a “defense contractor” or an FBI/Secret Service agent. They’re all way way cooler than I am, and I’m jealous. I’m jealous of the daring adventures, the life changing tests of adversity, and the thrill of experiencing life amplified 1000x in combat.

Now, I know I’m being naive and dramatizing a movie version of military life, but please pardon me while I indulge in my fantasy.

What would my military career have been like? I’m sure I’d be commanding a SEAL task unit by now. Or maybe I would have been a drill instructor in the Marine Corps like my homeboy Tommy D. No, I would have been leading from the front, jumping out of C-130s with the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division. So awesome.

And would my command style be like? I’d be aggressive, decisive and I’d move fast.

As a fan of history and all things military, I’ve noticed this common thread among my favorite generals of all time. Their default mode is to be aggressive, and they move faster than the enemy ever thought was possible. You wouldn’t have Sherman’s March to the sea, Ghengas Khan’s Mongolian conquests, or Geronimo’s Apaches’ last stand without swiftness of movement and aggressive action.

My paesano Cesaer.

Here are my three favorite historic commanders, and some words on their dominating styles:

  1. Gaius Julius Caesar, General of Roman Legions: “From the moment he entered his province, Caesar was on the march… In part, this practice simply reflects his thirst for glory, which he could not win by waiting for some enemy to come to him. He needed victories to secure his position at the top of the Republic’s political hierarchy, and to get them he would have to find enemies to conquer… Caesar persued his conquests with remarkable boldness and speed. The rapidity with which Caesar formulated his plans of campaign and put them into execution is evident from the very beginning… Cicero found the speed of Caesar’s advance through Italy “unbelievable”. Indeed, by that point “Caesarian Swiftness” had become all but proverbial.” – A Companion to Juilus Caesar by Mirium Griffen
  2. Napoleon Bonaparte 1, Emperor of the French: “One of Napoleon’s largest advantages was the speed of his troop movements. Napoleon insisted on extreme speed when conducting the marches, movements and attacks of his army. He claimed that the ‘Loss of time is irreparable in war…I may lose a battle but I should never lose a minute.’ These factors, combined with Napoleon’s innate persuasive ability to inspire his troops, resulted in successive victories in dominating fashion. His opponents were often confused and unsettled as Napoleon intricately coordinated strategic attacks on profound scales.”
  3. George S Patton, General US Army WW2: “A good plan violently executed now is better than a perfect plan executed next week.” “Speed, audacity, even recklessness were what he wanted, not meticulous advances from one point to another. ‘Shake up the enemy, rough him up, tear the campaign wide open. To hell with compromises.'” “When the great battle comes, remember your training, and remember above all that speed and vigor of attack are the sure roads to success, and you must succeed.” –The Patton Papers by George Patton and Martin Blumenson

Sadly I will never command a real army. The best I can do is pretend and borrow some leadership lessons from history’s brilliant military minds.

Here are a few thoughts for my fellow commanders at heart to carry with us at work, in life, or in mobile role playing games:

  1. Be decisive. Someone told me early in my career that a bad decision is better than no decision. Decisiveness breeds confidence in followers and indecision breeds mutiny.
  2. Make more time. Cesaer marched his troops day and night to out pace the enemy. We can make more hours in the day by waking up earlier or working later. I prefer the former, pulling my alarm clock further before dawn a little more each day, while some of my peers have been known to fire emails off well past midnight.
  3. Error on the side of action. Think about those A/B choice moments of your life. What caused the most regret? I remember regretting, “I wish I had pushed harder for that [thing I wanted],” or, “I made the right decision to act aggressively, I just wish I had done it much sooner.” Fortune favors the offensive. Choose action and choose now.
  4. Move now, adjust with new info, move again. I find I don’t have to solve every step of a strategy on day one. Emergent strategies, that is strategies that evolve as environmental forces affect them, have much more staying power than the deliberate strategies leaders try to solve on day 0 on whiteboards at headquarters.
  5. Have a big far off goal, and keep pushing towards it. No plan survives first contact with the enemy. As a senior leader I am working on crafting strategies with clear intent and big goals, but plenty of room for tactical leaders to have the flexibility they need. The big goal is our compass point.

People are funny. I’ve shared my civilian regrets with military friends. What do they tell me? Some say they sometimes wonder what their lives would have been like if they took the civilian route. The grass is always greener.

We can’t change the past. But we can aggressively attack the future with our best offense, starting right now.

Are you a fan of history and all things military? Here are some awesome sources of military-tainment:

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