How do leaders know what needs to be done? Do they have a special gift or talent? Some leaders do, but most do not. So, if you’re like me, a leader without a special talent for seeing the future, what do you do?
The best thing I’ve read on this topic is by William Duggan from Columbia University. In his book, Strategic Intuition, he outlines four keys to strategic insight that have worked for some of the world’s best leaders. Duggan’s study of Napoleon Bonaparte provides a vivid illustration.
In 1810, Napoleon was the most successful battlefield general in recorded history. Have you ever thought about how Napoleon went from Corporal to Emperor in less than a decade? He used a process that Duggan outlines for us – a process for finding strategic insight. (I’ve added my own translation in parenthesis.)
Examples from History (Study) - The first step in finding strategic insight is to look back to see what others have done – both good and bad. One quote from Napoleon himself makes the point for me:
“… Alexander, Hannibal, Caesar, Gustavus Aldolphus, Turrenne, Eugene of Savoy, Frederick the Great… The history of their eighty-three campaigns would constitute a complete treatise on the art of war.”
Napoleon drew insights from those who preceded them. He knew the history of his “industry,” all eighty-three campaigns! What can you and I learn from the history of our chosen profession?
Presence of Mind (Escape) - This is the step where you clear your mind of what others have done. Their goal is not yours. Focus on the present. Don’t get locked into any preconceived notions of what the right answer may be.
Flash of Insight (Think) - What is possible? What insights might be drawn from history? What combination of ideas might work? What would a different description of success look like?
Resolution (Test) - Do you truly believe the insight you found in the previous step is valid? What is your confidence level? History reveals that on numerous occasions Napoleon marched past the very places his enemies believed he would attack. His rationale: he would not fight in a place unless he was convinced he could win there.
So what does any of this have to do with you and me as leaders today? Everything. Think about the four steps; we must invest time and energy to Study – Escape – Think – Test. When we do, the prize is strategic insight.