War and Peace – Contemporary Lessons from the 19th century

The BBC has another hit on its hands with ‘War and Peace’ –  its adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s epic novel of 19th Century Russian society; set against the backdrop of Napoleon’s expansionist campaigns in Europe.

The digitally-served, globally-interconnected world of the 21st century seems a long way from Imperial Russia; but can we draw lessons that resonate today?  Tolstoy, in the Peace chapters, studies social relationships and the individual search for meaning; while the War chapters show the challenges of Napoleon’s advance into Russia – and the Russian response. And it is clear that both the military and corporate worlds can draw some valuable lessons here.

If we consider war (as a political tool) to be an extreme form of coercion, then at the other end of this spectrum we can find persuasion; an important instrument in the context of leadership and management. An intuitive reading of Napoleon’s advance, coupled with General Kutuzov’s (the Russian Army Commander) retreat might conclude that the Grand Armée is the victor; after all, they advance deep into enemy territory – even taking the capital, Moscow.

However, Napoleon’s strategy is questionable; because as he repeatedly seeks a decisive engagement, General Kutuzov successfully avoids him through tactical retreats. If we consider Napoleon’s original war aim – to persuade Russia to curtail their trade with Great Britain – he saw the defeat of the Russian army as the coercive tool with which to achieve his aim. But, it is difficult to defeat an army that refuses to engage and, in the end, he finds himself at the far reaches of an extended logistical chain; ill-equipped for the Russian weather and with his army suffering an asymmetric death by a thousand cuts.  And when that war aim is judged against the ultimate outcome – ignominious retreat from Moscow with no impact on British trade – then the strategic failure is clear.

So what are the contemporary lessons? I have identified the following three that are pertinent today.

First, while the political acceptability of giving ground may be questioned, there is an alternative to a head-on engagement that may deliver a better outcome. I’m not advocating that we should avoid difficult problems, but suggesting that we have to consider how we deal with a problem that a counterpart refuses to engage with.

To do this, we have to maintain focus on the outcome that is most acceptable to us and consider our ‘Best Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement’ (BATNA) if negotiation, or confrontation, is repeatedly avoided.  Napoleon’s experience shows us the importance of keeping an eye on the strategic end-point, and ensuring all actions are linked to our desired outcome.

Second, Napoleon’s problems were exacerbated by the extended logistic train that he found himself at the end of; in an era where an army was expected to obtain much of its food and fodder from the local population. Here, Napoleon misjudged the business environment. He miscalculated the ruthlessness and apparent lack of consideration that the Russian authorities had for their own population when they conducted the ‘scorched earth’ policy that destroyed farms and villages on Napoleon’s lines of communication that may have potentially supplied his army.

Finally, Napoleon was undone by the hostile environment – the famous Generals Janvier and Février of the Russian winter. Contingency planning (in this case preparation for a campaign that would extend into the harsh Russian winter) is an essential element of military and business planning. Once the plan is complete, the contingency planning has to start because experience tells us that nothing will ever follow the original plan and we would be foolish if we expect it to succeed.

Two centuries have passed since the battles recounted by Tolstoy took place, but while the world has changed immeasurably, human action and reaction – both rational and irrational – will continue to provide opportunities for learning from history.

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