War metaphors in business
By Roopen Roy Dec 08 2015
Several years ago, I sent out a memo to my team. It elaborated on the importance of the war for talent. The purpose was to emphasise, in a dramatic way, the importance of talent in business. I began by quoting the French statesman Georges Clemenceau who said, “War is too important a business to be left to the generals.” In other words, the war for talent cannot be left to the human resources department alone. The business leaders must fight from the front. I am still convinced now, as I was then, about the importance of talent. But I regret the use of the word ‘war’.
We tend to use war metaphors far too often. The term‘strategy’, for instance, comes from the ancient Greek for a ‘general’ in a military campaign. Our strategy is expanded with ‘tactics’ and ‘battle plans’ to take away market share and territory from our competitors. Is the world of business a huge ocean infested by sharks that are bloodying themselves by attacking each other for a finite amount of food?
I have often reminded my colleagues that, going into war for a good cause is not a concept that we borrowed from the west. In Mahabharata, the chief strategist was Krishna. He was not only directing Arjuna into battle, but was helping the Pandavas win without touching a piece of weapon. Before the epic battle, the great warrior Arjuna was in two minds. He knew that the war would be devastating and many people would be killed on both sides. But Krishna advised him to perform his duty, irrespective of the consequences. In today’s world, many of us share Arjuna’s dilemma.
I have often wondered why business leaders use war metaphors so easily and unthinkingly? Well, you might say a metaphor is shorthand to explain a complex idea. It is. But it also reflects a state of mind and the ‘battle cries’ of the leader promotes a certain kind of behaviour. Let me provide you with some examples of war metaphors we use freely in our business conversations without realising. We ‘launch’ ‘campaigns’. As part of prolonged negotiations, we declare ‘truce’. We often describe mature markets as ‘battlegrounds’ where no one wins unless you can innovate and differentiate. When ‘attacked’ we go into ‘fox holes’. We ‘fire’ ‘salvoes’ when we are engaged in ‘pitched battles’ against the products of a competitor. We join the ‘ranks’ and lead the ‘troops from the front’. When we want to avoid a market segment, we call it a ‘no-fly zone’. We are afraid of a ‘fire storm’ in the social media. There are many more examples.
I remember that a US-based global CEO of one of my former employers had divided the world into three theatres: The Americas, the Europe, Middle East and Africa (EMEA) theatre and the Asia-Pacific. I was not familiar with the terminology. Thus, I was taken aback when an American colleague asked me what theatre I belonged to. Where I come from, theatre is either a dramatic performance or a place or a hall where performances take place. To my American colleagues, theatre with a geographic adjective like American theatre refers to a theatre of war. It is a military term, which means a geographic area where armed conflict takes places and where competitors are supposed to be ‘pounded’ and ‘pulverised’ until they ‘surrender’ market share.
I asked my colleagues and mentors why there was such a frequent use of war metaphors and I was told that this motivates people and boost their ‘morale’ as they go into battle. The famous clip of Al Pacino in Any Given Sunday was staple training material until I decided that it was not appropriate. In this clip, Al Pacino is a coach of a football team and he is motivating and inspiring his team before they go into the playfield. It is a long speech and you can watch it on YouTube. I am setting out below the operative part where he exhorts the team to fight for every inch of the battleground:
“The inches we need are everywhere around us. They are in every break of the game, every minute, every second. On this team, we fight for that inch. On this team, we tear ourselves, and everyone around us to pieces for that inch. We CLAW with our finger nails for that inch. Cause we know when we add up all those inches that’s going to make the bloody difference between WINNING and LOSING, between LIVING and DYING.”
If we exhort our recruits to follow Al Pacino, we then will create street fighters, not ethical leaders. Let us step back a little. In business what is our objective? Is it to kill competition or vanquish the enemy? Or is it, as Peter Drucker said to create a customer. Mahatma Gandhi said exactly the same thing. If the customer is the purpose of our business,then why would we focus all our energies in bruising the competitor instead of delighting our customer? Every successful leader should have a healthy respect for competition and an unwavering motto to win the hearts and minds of his customers. Have you watched Sumo wrestling? Before the wrestlers begin, they bow to each other with deep respect. It is a sport or a competition, not a war.
War metaphors impact the fabric of values of a company. They shape the behaviour of people. Some ‘troops’ try to cut corners to win. Some adopt a ‘take no prisoners’ attitude. If the objective is to defeat the competitor, you have one set of behaviours. If your purpose is to create and delight your customers, you have another set of behaviours. Business should be more like a sport than a war. Sadly, some like football coach played by Al Pacino think of sport as a war. More dangerously, some leaders believe war is a sport.
(The author is founder and CEO of Sumantrana, a strategy advisory firm)