The concept of “strategy” as understood in the fields of Military Planning and Business Management



Author: Dr George Bailey OBE



Table of Contents:

Strategy, this universal concept: where does it come from?

Classical interpretations

Sun Tzu’s ‘Art of War’

Linking the Classical Age to the Twenty-First Century

Defining Military Strategy in the Nuclear Age

Some Business definitions of Strategy

Strategy and Grand Tactics

Comparing and contrasting the Military definitions

Adding the Business dimension

The Art of Politics – and the Possible

Strategy’s relationship with Politics

Implementing Strategy can fail: the Case of Hitler’s Eastern Front Campaign

Winning Politically through the use of Strategy: a Conclusion


Prepared for the Website



Strategy, this universal concept: where does it come from?

The word “strategy” has become one of the most dynamic words in the English language. This is because it is believed to offer those using it an advantage over their rivals. Hence it is a commonly used concept in both the military and business spheres where ‘competitive strength’ is expected to bring success.

This analysis will focus primarily on examining how definitions of strategy have evolved in the military sphere. However its usage in the business sphere will be considered where it serves to better expose the understanding and the limitations of the concept in its military application.

The word is derived from the two classical Greek words ‘stratos‘ and ‘agein‘:-

Stratos‘ – an encamped army covering ground;

agein‘ – to lead.

When amalgamated into the term ‘strategos‘ meaning the general, this has lead to strategy being taken to be “the art of generalship” in Ancient Greece.

Interpreting the word ‘stratos‘, there appeared to have been the recognition by the Greek commanders of that time that an army within its camp was a unit of administration requiring to be controlled. By ground can be inferred that such a unit has parts which have to be laid out in an ordered way – otherwise chaos will occur (such as different tribes competing to have their tents closest to a source of water). This need for control appears to have been extended by commanders such as Alexander the Great to the laying out of the parts of the unit over the field chosen for battle.


Classical interpretations

The evolution of the term ‘strategos‘ was a recognition that the style of fighting in the Ancient World had moved away from individuals fighting man to man, as exemplified in the tales of heroes such as Achilles in the Trojan War. Instead it had evolved into trained groups of men fighting in a co-ordinated way, and such co-ordination needed careful planning and administration if it was to be effectively integrated within an army capable of making disciplined manoeuvres on the battlefield. The highly successful ‘hoplite’ infantry units of the Athenian State were such an example.

But the greatness of this State rested on more than military prowess – the Athenians discussed the theory of strategy and linked the theory to practice by means of what is today known as ‘case studies’ (see the Website ‘’ for military examples taken from the Great War of 1914 to 1918). Through this method, examples of both best and worst practices could be rigorously analysed and lessons learned. Indeed the intellectual world of Plutarch would not seem too out of place in the military world of the modern staff college or the civilian world of the business schools.

Kleisthenes in 508-7 B.C. instituted the Athenian State’s military and political system, the ten ‘strategoi‘ who formed the Athenian war council. These ‘strategoi‘ provided the generals in times of war and peace, controlling military operations as well as strongly influencing political activities. Gradually the Athenians developed the concept of strategy as the ‘art of generalship’ – thereby usefully combining the psychological and behavioural skills needed to fulfil this leadership role.

By 450 B.C., when Pericles was the Athenian leader, it had further developed its meaning to cover managerial skills including administration, leadership, oration and the use of power. Hence Xenophon wrote of it as ‘knowing the business which you propose to carry out’. (in de Wit and Meyer, 1998). During Alexander the Great’s rule, a century later, it covered the skill of employing forces to overcome any opposition and to create a unified system of international governance.

And in the first century A.D., Frontinus defined strategy as ‘everything achieved by a commander, be it characterized by foresight, advantage, enterprise, or resolution.’ (in de Wit and Meyer, 1998)


Sun Tzu’s ‘Art of War’

At almost the same time as Kleisthenes was forming the Athenian war council, in China a native of Qi, Sun Tzu, wrote the thirteen chapter ‘Art of War’. Prince He Lu, the ruler of the neighbouring state of Wu was greatly impressed by the book and by a practical demonstration of its message. In 506 B.C., he appointed Sun Tzu the supreme commander of the Wu armies. Sun Tzu then lead them to victories over neighbouring states, including that of his birth, for twenty years until his death. (Kheng-Hor, 1992)

Only in 1772 did the French Jesuit Joseph Amyot (Chaliand, 1994) translate the book into a Western language. Although the translation temporarily enjoyed great success it was soon forgotten. Even though an intensive reader of books on military ideas during his training at the Artillery Training School at Auxonne in 1788 and 1789, Napoleon Bonaparte appears not to have read Sun Tzu from the lack of evidence of this given in Chandler (1966).

It was not until Western military strategists sought to understand the success of Mao Tse-Tung who had applied Sun Tzu’s teachings that Sun Tzu was rediscovered and the value of his ideas appreciated. Nowadays the message of the indirect strategy in the ‘Art of War’ is familiar to many European military strategists. As to applying the message to business situations, Japanese company executives have taken the book to heart.

Nevertheless, in the development of Western understanding of how to wage war, Sun Tzu remains outside the mainstream of the evolution of military ideas. However his example demonstrates that at similar times in history, new and similar ideas can develop in countries even thousands of miles apart. Sun Tzu’s ‘Art of War’ will continue to be mined by military and business strategists as a historical curiosity that confirms the correctness of contemporary military strategies.

Linking the Classical Age to the Twenty-First Century

After the fall of Rome and the temporary loss of so much knowledge, bards and poets collected the events surrounding historical battles, the triumphs and the failures, and passed this folklore on as guidance for their audiences. As social groupings once again became more sophisticated during the Middle Ages and armed conflicts became more complex, both soldiers and politicians studied, wrote down and tested different options until coherent principles emerged. Pre-eminent among them was Karl von Clausewitz during the early years of the Nineteenth Century. Foch and Liddell Hart gained great reputations in the Twentieth Century before the onset of the Nuclear Age after the Second World War. Each would describe strategy as set in the particular environment of the time they were examining it.

Examples of how strategy has been defined during the past two centuries:

Karl von Clausewitz – ‘Strategy forms the plan, and to this end it links together the series of acts which are to lead to the final decision;’ (in de Wit and Meyer, 1998); and

‘the use of combat, or the threat of combat, for the purpose of the war in which it takes place.’

‘the use of armed force to achieve the military objectives and, by extension, the political purpose of the war.’

‘strategy forms the theory of using battle for the purposes of the war.’ (all in Paret, 1986)

Baron Antoine Henri de Jomini – ‘Strategy is the art of making war upon the map, and comprehends the whole theater of operations.’ (in Chaliand, 1994)

Field Marshal Helmuth von Moltke – ‘Strategy is a system of ad hoc expedients.’

‘Strategy is the application of common sense to the conduct of war…’ (both in Paret, 1986)

Captain Basil Liddell Hart – ‘… the art of distributing and applying military means to fulfil the ends of policy.’ (in Freedman, 1994)


Defining Military Strategy in the Nuclear Age

Craig and Gilbert – ‘effective strategy is always a calculated employment of force and statecraft for a political end.’ (in Paret, 1986)

Sokolovsky – ‘… a system of theoretical knowledge dealing with the laws of war as an armed conflict in the name of definite class interests.’

‘… deep nuclear-missile strikes in conjunction with operations of all branches of the armed forces in order to inflict a simultaneous defeat and destruction of the enemy’s economic potential and armed forces throughout the whole depth of his territory, for the accomplishment of the war aims within a short time span.’ (both in Freedman, 1994)

Freedman, as mentioned by Heuser (pers.comm., 1997) – ‘Strategy is about the relationship between political ends and military means; the art of creating power.’

As suggested by Heuser (pers.comm., 1996) – ‘Rationalisation into military ‘actions’ of the interaction between beliefs about the enemy and beliefs about oneself.’


Some Business definitions of Strategy

Business theorists and practitioners, having to understand the strategic process operating within highly competitive environments, have offered the following definitions:

Chandler – ‘…the determination of the basic long-term goals and objectives of an enterprise, and the adoption of courses of action and the allocation of resources necessary for carrying out these goals.’ (1962)

Quinn – ‘A strategy is the pattern or plan that integrates an organisation’s major goals, policies, and action sequences into a cohesive whole. A well-formulated strategy helps to marshal and allocate an organisation’s resources into a unique and viable posture based on its relative internal competencies and shortcomings, anticipated changes in the environment and contingent moves by intelligent opponents.’ (1980)

Andrews – ‘…a pattern of decisions…the unity, coherence and internal consistency of a company’s strategic decisions that position a company in its environment and give the firm its identity, its power to mobilise its strengths, and its likelihood of success in the marketplace.’ (1987)

Ansoff and McDonnell – ‘…strategic management is a systemic approach for managing strategic change which consists of the following:

1. positioning of the firm through strategy and capability planning;

2. real-time strategic response through issue management;

3. systematic management of resistance during strategic implementation.’ (1990)

Mintzberg and Quinn suggest strategy as the interrelationship between the 5 P’s – plans, ploys, patterns, position and perspective.’ (1991)

Hax suggests ‘…the major force that provides a comprehensive and integrative blueprint for an organization as a whole…the pattern of decisions a firm makes.’ (in de Wit and Meyer, 1998)

Once the term is defined, it can be used to decide:

* the organization’s purpose in terms of its long-term objectives;

* the organization’s competitive arena;

* the organization’s ability to gain competitive advantage out of its operating environment;

* how strategy is to be performed at different levels within the organization;

* how the organizations will benefit those who have a stake in its activities. (Kheng-Hor, 1992)

Cole suggests a definition seeking to unite the different strands – ‘Strategic management is a process, directed by top management, to determine the fundamental aims or goals of the organisation, and ensure a range of decisions which will allow for the achievement of those aims or goals in the long-term, whilst providing for adaptive responses in the shorter term. (1994)


Strategy and Grand Tactics

The terms ‘strategy’ and ‘tactics’ often appear to be used interchangeably, which can create confusion. Baron de Jomini has correctly pointed out that there is a difference between the concept of strategy and the practice of grand tactics. Strategy is about deciding what to do, grand tactics about how to do it. The Soviet approach during the Cold War strongly emphasised grand tactics which they called ‘operational art’ (Heuser, pers.comm., 1997). From personal discussions with Russian economics professors in St. Petersburg during 1994, it was clear that Soviet economic strategies were enclosed for seventy years within the Marxist vision of the ‘ultimate victory of the proleteriat’. The economists’ duty was how to turn that vision into reality.


Comparing and contrasting the Military definitions

As understanding has improved of how war is waged, so generally have the insights provided by the military definitions. The early thinkers saw “strategy” as a reflection of the leader’s ability but some of the later thinkers of the Classical World began to recognise the importance of the management function although still concentrating on how to wage war. Indeed Xenophon’s definition is so modern in its understanding that it holds its rightful place in a 1998 corporate strategy textbook.

During the Middle Ages, grand tactics focused initially on how quickly to get knights at each other to trade blows rather like gangs of young boys do; later these crude tactics were replaced by the application of mathematical formulae to the methods of fighting. Nevertheless some leaders did study the art of war. In 1410, King Jagiello of Poland had a strategical plan ‘to seize the initiative at the onset and compel his enemy to conform to his movements. (Evans, 1970) At Grunwald (but called by the Germans Tannenberg), his strategic flair lead to the combined Polish-Lithuanian Army destroying the Order of Teutonic Knights.

As already shown, Karl von Clausewitz and Baron de Jomini presented definitions from which they advanced the systematic understanding of military strategy and the theory of conducting war. However von Clausewitz in ‘On War’ was more significant because he came to recognise war’s link with political events and began the insights which have been developing ever since into the philosophical and later psychological features of waging war. Baron de Jomini diverted into the operational tactics of conducting campaigns.

Later theorists such as Liddell Hart, Craig and Gilbert, and Freedman have enlarged the political dimension to war, linking it to policy, power and the perceptions of the antagonists. It is now recognised, as presented by Heuser, that the strategic decision to wage war, or not, does depend on their current belief systems. These can be modified by events, sometimes quickly and unexpectedly such as following the bombing of Pearl Harbour.

The evolution of strategic understanding does show the effect on the early and the latest theorists of the changes in how warfare is waged at the national and indeed supra-national levels. The former tended to place strong emphasis on personal qualities found in leaders because such leaders were both the political and the military leaders and often answerable to only themselves. The latter theorists focus on the reasons underlying the waging of war. In the two world wars of the twentieth century, the military commanders rarely had political leadership and took their instructions from the politicians. Understanding the personalities, motivations, and aspirations of a considerable number of people exercising collective leadership (as demonstrated by those politicians and military commanders controlling the Allied efforts in resourcing and fighting both World Wars) is difficult. Hence the latter theorists find themselves having to seek better understanding by exploiting the advancement of knowledge in many spheres unknown to or barely understood by the early theorists. Three of these are economics, sociology and psychology.


Adding the Business dimension

By contrast, whereas strategic understanding in the military sphere has evolved slowly over more than two millennia, in the business sphere such understanding has had to develop rapidly during the past fifty years. This is due to commercial organizations having to deal urgently with the international competitive forces released by the turbulence within the world economy created by the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade. For many, their survival has depended on their making correct responses. (Andrews, 1987)

Hence the strong emphasis given to understanding the operating environment (the famous PESTEL analysis -political/economic/social/technological/

environmental/legal) in order to assess how well the rivals are coping with it. Plans of how to gain a competitive edge over these antagonists are developed from this analysis and the relationships that they have with:-

* the suppliers of necessary resources,

* the users of the rivals’ products and services, and

* the attitudes of those who are interested in or have a stake in their actions

(the power relationships of the stakeholders).

Such planning (Kheng-Hor, 1992, Quinn, 1980) requires a rigorous examination of the challenges facing the various rivals, their ability to take advantage of opportunities which emerge (Cole, 1994), and logistical expertise (Chandler, 1962). Hubris, or overwheening pride, is discouraged because the competitive abilities of rivals should never be under-estimated – simply because a change in the PESTEL factors may suddenly improve their competitive strengths. Finally there must be consistency if those asked to implement the strategy are to have confidence in it. (Ansoff and McDonnell, 1990)

The business practitioners need to be mindful of Helmuth von Moltke’s observation that once implementation begins, unexpected problems arise. (in Chaliand, 1994) So the successful ones recognise the need to be flexible, to carefully estimate the levels of risk of different courses of action and to actively encourage and enable new strategies to emerge. But they recognise the importance of the ‘political’ dimension’ (Mintzberg and Quinn, 1991) even within a small industry.

This comparison with business practices shows that the modern military strategists can usefully learn from the fast-moving and fast-changing theatre of commercial operations. Hence the growing interest in comparing and contrasting the reasoning behind strategy formulation under conditions of war and peace which underpins this website.

In summary, sound strategy comes from rational thought based on scientific analysis. Received wisdom has to be examined to check its continuing relevance. Only after rigorous analysis is that ‘wisdom’ allowed to decide the decisions which follow. But care must be taken to ensure that timing and climatic conditions are properly considered in shaping these decisions – for example, to launch an attack across the Russian steppes in the depths of winter is more difficult than to do so in high summer.


The Art of Politics – and the Possible

The political process decides whether or not war will occur, how it will be fought and what will be done with the outcome of the war. The successful implementation of strategy will achieve a peace favourable to the winner’s needs and aspirations for land holdings, access to mineral resources, sources of future wealth, amongst others. However outstanding political strategists such as Prince Otto von Bismarck, the German Chancellor during the creation of the Greater German Empire in the later Nineteenth Century, have recognised the need to continue to pursue political objectives even whilst at war. In both the World Wars of the Twentieth Century there were moments when political interventions might have shortened the periods of fighting. But the timings were not right for both sets of belligerents to be willing to negotiate.

Politics has been called ‘the art of the possible’ – with much good reason. It is about persuading others to accept a particular point of view. That point may not be individualised, it may be a corporate expression of what should be agreed and implemented. To achieve this persuasion, skills in oratory, writing, and visual or audile presentation are generally important. From experience comes a feel for what is ‘possible’. Often the ‘possible’ is closely controlled by the environment in which the persuasion is taking place, and the time at which it takes place. Furthermore it is influenced either by the persuader having superior power or superior legitimate authority. Sometimes this superior power may be the threat of military or legal action if verbal persuasion fails to achieve the sought objective.

Timing does strongly affect whether or not the suggested action is acceptable to the stakeholders. The listeners’ personal emotions (such as eagerness, stubbornness, apathy, boredom, fear, etc.,) will greatly influence their decisions to agree or not. For example, some committee agendas have unpleasant but necessary items placed at the end. By the time they are taken at the end of a meeting, the resistance of the committee members is low as they want to go home or have a meal. The items are agreed with but little discussion.

As a subject concerning and of interest to many, much is written about the civil theory of politics. What has been described is based on the practical knowledge, not theory alone, gained through personal experience by this long-term practitioner of its art at different levels of government.


Strategy’s relationship with Politics

As already discussed, strategy is the planning of actions to be implemented at some future date, which can be soon or in the long-term. Politics is about assessing whether the plan can be implemented and will require a determination of its suitability, consistency, acceptability and feasibility to possibly a wide range of people who can be identified as being stakeholders. As part of gaining its acceptability, the political element of persuasion comes into operation.

In the process of strategic management, the assessment of factors such as what is happening externally, what might be done, what resources are available, what capabilities and competencies are possessed need rational appraisal. From this analysis comes the determination of feasibility (‘what can be done?’) and suitability (‘is it worth doing?’). Then the persuasion gains acceptability from those who will have to implement what is planned (in the military sphere the generals and their staff) or those who will accept, willingly or otherwise, the goals of the strategist. These stakeholders may need to be convinced that the proposed strategy is consistent with what has gone before to have confidence in it.

During the process known as the management of change, the staff are likely to become demoralised under the the turbulent conditions of the unfreezing and changing stages. The changemaster then adopts a political stance in order to re-motivate the staff as the freezing stage begins. They will have to be reassured that the changes they are helping to implement are beginning to deliver the promised results.


Implementation Strategy can fail: the Case of Hitler’s Eastern Front Campaign

In completing this examination of the relationship between strategy and politics, there is the recognition that implementing the plans developed from strategic analysis is often problematical, as understood by Helmuth von Moltke, the famous Prussian Chief of Staff. (in Chaliand, 1994)

Glantz (1993) well expresses the problem:

‘…no plan survives first contact. But, of course, plans are necessary because a good plan will get you to the start line with the right stuff at the right place, and at the right time.’

However careful the planning, sometimes implementation is unsuccessful. This dilemma bedevils not only military planning, but planning in civil administrations. When it happens, the strategist will need to modify his thinking. But for powerful leaders, this may suggest weakness – which cannot be tolerated.

For example, Hitler’s strategic thinking especially from late 1942 in the Eastern Front Campaign gives a clear example of believing that the exercise of enough personal will can conquer the friction caused by the unplanned unfolding of events.

After the launch of Operation Barbarossa on Midsummer’s day in 1941, the Wehrmacht had outstanding success until they stalled before the gates of Moscow. As the snows came and the temperature dropped, Hitler issued instructions to hold a ‘net of defended localities’ (Clark, 1995) that saved his armies which otherwise would have disintegrated as they attempted to carry out a strategic withdrawal. But once the Wehrmacht began their next offensive in June 1942 across the vasteness of the Russian steppes towards the river Volga which lead to their defeat at the Siege of Stalingrad, his conduct of the campaign demonstrated this conflict between exercising will-power and responding proactively to unforeseen circumstances. :

‘…stiff, inflexible conduct of the defensive phase of the war from late 1942 onward.’ (Stolfi, 1992)

– based on his Germany-under-siege mentality. This suggests a possible link between the ‘psychological’ fear of the German peoples under threat from their location, in the centre of Europe (Moen, 1941) and Hitler’s experience of being temporarily blinded (Bullock, 1991) on the Western Front in October 1918. That inflexible refusal to build new strategies emerging from changing conditions lead to the military disasters of Stalingrad and later Kursk.

Yet at the launch of Operation Barbarossa, Hitler had clear political aims, to destroy the Communist ideology. He also had strong economic aims, to guarantee the land and mineral resources to replace the German economy being reliant upon autarky (Cecil, 1975) – and prevent the economy being further damaged by the British Royal Navy’s blockade. Unfortunately for the Third Reich, Germany did not have the resources of manpower, materials and energy to enable these strategic objectives to be realised.


Winning Politically through the use of Strategy: a Conclusion

As to turning the strategy concept into a winning political instrument, Stolfi’s (1992) judgement on Hitler’s overall management performance between 1941 and 1945 serves as a useful warning of how strategy, tactics and implementation must each be properly controlled and co-ordinated:

‘Hitler faced the self-imposed task of providing strategic political direction for Germany in war while in operational command of the armed forces. This two-faceted situation quickly highlighted the strengths and weaknesses of the man… – the strategic vision, the operational fears, and the tactical compulsions that drove him.’

In business management today, linking the three very different aspects of strategic vision, tactical planning and operational management to a high enough standard to sustain competitive advantage is generally acknowledged for larger organizations to be well beyond the capabilities of an individual. Robert Maxwell tried obsessively to control all three tasks; his drowning from off his yacht ‘saved’ him having to explain the collapse of his publishing ’empire’!

In conclusion, the evolution of the concept of “strategy” and the development of the strategic process has advanced in both the military and business spheres to encompass the new disciplines of knowledge and what they can contribute to greater understanding. However implementing strategy successfully does require political sophistication – because intelligent opponents will seek to thwart the implementation by their aggressive use of counter-strategies. It is at this level in the dynamic military and business environments that the application of “strategy” becomes both an art and a science.





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© GNA Bailey (29/3/2001)


Prepared for the Website: 29 March 2001.