Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Business Book Hall of Fame: "War & Peace"

Heard of it?

Read it? Probably not. It's the dictionary example of a long book. And it is long. Based on some indirect prodding from Dave Snowden and Jochum Stienstra, I finally picked it up, determined to read the whole thing, in November 2008. It is now the end of January 2009, and that'll tell you what a commitment is required to finish it. (The pile of unread books by my desk is now immense.) I can also heartily recommend the new English translation by Pevear and Volokhonsky; the writing was easy to understand and felt modern and fresh.

Was it worth nearly three months of effort? Hell, yes. "War & Peace" is an amazing work for our time (or any time). There are great love stories and domestic dramas in the book as well, but for the purposes of this post I'm going to focus on how the book tackles leadership, strategy, complexity and chance.

Perhaps most amazing is how Tolstoy shoots down the historian's view of the power of individuals to shape history. Here he is explaining Napoleon's rise to power:

Chance, millions of chances, give him power, and all people, as if by arrangement, contribute to the strengthening of that power. Chance makes the characters of the then rulers of France submissive to him; chance makes the character of Paul I, who recognizes his power; chance makes a conspiracy against him which not only does not harm him, but strengthens his power. Chance sends d'Enghien into his hands and accidentally forces him to kill him, thereby convincing the mob more forcefully than by any other means that he has the right, because he has the power. Chance makes it so that he strains all his forces towards an expedition to England, which obviously would have destroyed him, and never carries out his intention, but instead unexpectedly runs into Mack and his Austrians, who surrender without a battle. Chance and genius give him the victory at Austerlitz, and by chance all people, not only the French, but all of Europe as well, with the exception of England, which does not participate in the events about to take place, all people, despite their former horror and loathing for his crimes, now recognize his power, the title he has given himself, and his ideal of greatness and glory, which to all of them seems something beautiful and reasonable. (pp 1134-1135)

Of course, when the chances turn against him, starting with the invasion of Russia, he quickly becomes a fool and a failure. Was he a genius, or an idiot? Neither, of course. He was participant in a sequence of events over which he had little control, according to Tolstoy. This is a humbling lesson for leaders of all types, who operate in the complex domain--whether that be warfare, business or politics. Events will define you far more than you define yourself. Your actions, to a large extent, will be overwhelmed by forces outside of your control.

Does this then mean that generalship doesn't matter? Tolstoy would say yes. Throughout the book he writes that the most carefully-created war plans go off the rails immediately after the battle begins, while a single junior officer, deciding on his own to attack the French flank, can have an immense impact on winning or losing. And that the passions of the soldiers have much more effect on the outcome than the best leadership and training.

In my times working at very large companies, this seemed true to me. The accomplishments of the company were the agglomeration of thousands of small efforts on behalf of the rank and file. [You could argue that company failures--Enron, AIG, for example--also work this way.] First-line managers had a big impact. Directors, somewhat. But the plans and strategies of the C-level executives, sitting in the God Pod, at the end of the day, didn't mean much at all.

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