The Point Of Strategy

I was at West Point (Revolutionary War fort turned Military Academy) recently for leadership training with my team. West Point is literally named for the point of land that juts out into the Hudson River from the west bank as the river makes a tight S-curve. George Washington believed controlling this point and being able to prevent or allow ships to move up and down the river was key to winning the war. The British agreed.

The difference was in how they went about capturing and then controlling this strategic point.

George Washington knew they had to take and hold this critical ground in order to control the river and limit the British access to resources and reinforcements. The British knew this too, but the British had sent three generals—Howe, Burgoyne, and Clinton—to lead the British forces. Each of these men wanted to win the war, but they had very different ideas about how to do it.

Burgoyne actually went back to England to lobby for his own plan which was a bold attack by him with an assist from the others. His plan was unsuccessful and ended up surrendering his army to the Colonialists. Howe was certain that attacking Washington directly and defeating and/or capturing him would end the war immediately. Instead of staying with the plan to assist in the attack on the Hudson Highlands, he wasted time and resources and then was unable to come to Burgoyne’s aid. Clinton was initially successful, but when he heard about Burgoyne falling, he retreated to New York.

In contrast, Washington was single handedly in charge of the Colonial force. By December of 1777, once the British had retreated to New York City, the Colonials reoccupied West Point and Washington made the fortification and holding of it the highest priority. By the end of April 1778, the Colonials had built fortifications (they would continue to work on them until the end of the war) and made and installed a 65-ton chain across the river at West Point. For the rest of the war, the British never attempted to force the river at West Point nor attempted to storm the defenses by land attack.

Leader’s Intent. That’s what the military calls the primary strategy. It is so important that there is a complete set of processes that surround it. It doesn’t matter whether you are trying to win a war or get an internal project done, some things promote success, and some things lead to disaster.

The leader’s intent must be clear. In the case above, “win the war” wasn’t detailed enough. Three leaders had three different methods. Any one of them might have succeeded if everything and everyone was committed to that plan. Washington was singular and clear. He communicated often to those at West Point, encouraging them and confirming the plan and its importance. He also committed scarce resources to the effort to ensure they had what they needed.

I am always clear in my own head about what I want done and how I would prefer for it to be done. It makes perfect sense to me. I cannot expect that to translate to others without serious effort on my part to communicate and reinforce the strategy. It has been said, “I don’t know what I’ve said until you tell me what you’ve heard.” Having your team retell the strategy or goal in their own words is a great way to determine if what you said and what they heard match.

Sometimes, I create too many strategies and paralyze my team. Lion tamers historically used a chair when they went into the ring. They would hold the seat and point the legs at the lion. Lions are point focused hunters. Faced with four points, they are unable to decide which to attack, and so they don’t. They sit down and do nothing. Our teams can face the same confusion when we give too many priorities or strategies. Overwhelmed and unable to choose what is really important to attack, they do nothing.

While establishing the leader’s intent is the leader’s job (you can get input, but the direction must be clearly from the leader) the plan for how to achieve the goal is everybody’s job. Planning should involve people from as many areas as are affected by the goal. Some people should be designated as the “red team” to come up with reasons why the plan might fail and brainstorm unforeseen issues. Then, a final review of the plan to verify that, if successful, it will meet the leader’s intent, should be done with the leader.

Finally, once the action(s) have been taken, reviewing how things went is potentially the most important thing a team can do. Ask what was supposed to happen, what happened, and why. Keep rank, seniority, and egos out of the room. The purpose is to learn, not to blame someone. If things went well, celebrate that. If things didn’t go well, determine why and create a response to improve next time, and celebrate anything that did go right! One of the primary “points” of leadership is to set the strategy or goal for the community. There can be longer term vision and mission, and of course the daily work must happen, but there must be a near term objective that everyone can focus on. Without a single point to attack, individual priorities will redirect resources and create sub-groups, splitting the team and causing confusion and lack of alignment. Having a clear leader’s intent and communicating it often gives each individual the opportunity to focus their energy on success. That’s the point, and it is also The Bison Way.