War Metaphors

War metaphors in business

By Roopen Roy Dec 08 2015

Tags: Op-ed

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)