Books: All is fair in work and war?

The writer of this tome on military strategy shows a poor grasp of the subject and confuses waging war with life. John Adair finds it lacking in practical wisdom.

by John Adair, an author and adviser on leadership development withthe Adair Leadership Foundation,
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Given the title The 33 Strategies of War, I half expected a modern version of Sun-Tzu's The Art of War, an ancient Chinese source of military wisdom recommended as a textbook for business executives. Although Greene dedicates his book to Sun-Tzu (along with Napoleon, the goddess Athene and Brutus his cat), he makes no attempt to apply his 33 axioms to the conduct of business.

Nor does Greene show any knowledge of the points where military strategy has had an impact on organisational life. For instance, he outlines the Auftragstaktik command system introduced by the Prussian generals in the 19th century. This substituted blind obedience with a method of directing subordinate commanders by briefing them on strategic objectives and leaving them to work out how best to achieve them as a team.

Known today as 'Mission Command', it is now standard western military practice. But Greene fails to mention that Peter Drucker led the way to the system being applied in industry under the term 'Management by Objectives', which in turn is the father of today's Performance Management.

If, on the other hand, The 33 Strategies of War is supposed to fall into the self-help book genre, it isn't exactly user-friendly,with 450 pages of historical narratives laced with commentaries and quotations from military theorists.

Greene's case studies are drawn from ancient and modern military history, sprinkled with anecdotes from such diverse fields as baseball, presidential politics, Hollywood, legends of the Japanese Samurai, auction houses, Metternich's diplomacy and heavyweight boxing. So the 33 'strategies' are general in scope: 'Lose Battles But Win The War', 'Know Your En-emy' and 'Weave A Seamless Blend of Fact and Fiction' and so on.

It soon becomes evident that Greene - a magazine editor and playwright resident in Los Angeles - is not a military historian. His account of TE Lawrence's part in the Arab Revolt shows little understanding of that theatre of war and Lawrence's role in the campaign.

But the real flaw of the book is much deeper. It rests on the assumption that the art of military strategy and the art of living are comparable because common to both of them is the concept of the enemy. Life is war.

To be successful is the same as being victorious, to gain mastery over your enemies.

In order to do so, you should become a 'strategic warrior'. The first principle in his gospel is to 'Declare War on your Enemies'. The known enemy, he believes, gives purpose and direction to life: 'your enemy is the polar star that guides you'. Thus hate becomes the mainspring motive of life.

The truth is that if you expect hostility, you will get it; seek friendship and that is what you will find.

We use military metaphors about daily life and work because there are analogies to be drawn, but all analogies break down. A competitor in business or a rival in love is not an enemy. It is true that groups, organisations and even nations can be united by presenting them with an enemy, but in today's world all wars are now really civil wars. A wise general may need surgical skill to win a war, but hating the enemy is counterproductive.

The source of Greene's enemy-centred view comes in the final pages, where he discusses Al-Qaeda's attack on New York. He regards it as a strategic success according to his principles, because of its damaging effects on the American way of life. This book reflects that new culture of fear in America. Greene is telling his fellow Americans that they can win only by applying a grand strategy superior to that of their enemies.

In this endless war, both national and personal, 'Moral Strategies' are simply means to self-interested ends. 'Transform your War into a Crusade', he advocates, but adds that it does not matter what the cause is as long as you present it in progressive language. 'If necessary, you can give it a veneer of spirituality' (my italics). The same low doctrine of life and human nature also pervades strategy number 25, 'Occupy The Moral High Ground'. We are assured that this is no more than a 'critical strategic ploy'. Sometimes, the Americans are a terror to their own allies.

This book lacks a proper understanding of what the Greeks call phronesis, practical wisdom. It's the quality required both in strategic leadership and for leading one's personal life - a mixture of intelligence, experience and goodness.

You may well enjoy dipping into the military history, much of it stimulating, but do not expect Greene's philosophy to help you 'to gain mastery in the modern world'. It is people who seek to be servants rather than masters who achieve the true mastery.

THE 33 STRATEGIES OF WAR Richard Greene Profile £20.00 MT price £18.00 To order, visit

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