Summer recess

Gary Dean
Gary Dean

By Gary Dean, managing director of strategic consultancy, The Truffle Pig Consulting Co.

The first half of this year we explored some key strategy tools – so for this column, I’ve decided it’s time for a break.

As (hopefully) the sun shines, I would like to indulge in taking you somewhere else this month.

In recent times, I have become a little obsessed with history as I researched my own family trees and if you have ever started this journey, you will probably understand this obsession. When you start finding nobility, tragic stories and even connections to royalty, then that’s even more absorbing.

I discovered I have an ancestor in King Edward I amongst others – but so might you?

History is an incredible source of teaching. If only we, as a collective of humans, listened to the lessons.

Here is a couple from more recent stories from history which might spark something in you as you sip a G&T and relax….

The most exceptional outcome of any military victory is not having to fight it yourself and still winning completely. That’s certainly true of ‘battles’ in business, too.

Is this possible? Well, for the Ottoman Turks in 1788 it happened just that way.

At this time, Austria was at war with Turkey again, or maybe better to say the Otterman Empire was making trouble against the Russians and the house of Habsburg and all that jazz. Religion was claimed as its justification, though it was always really land and power behind the relentless European conflicts between its inter-related monarchies and others.

Ready to take on the challenge, or so it seemed, the Austrian army marched upon a place called Karansebes. And then it appears things began to go a little wrong. Have your G&T (or whatever) in hand.

As many as 100,000 Austrian troops set up camp and prepared for the expected arrival of the Ottomans. Scouts were sent out to spot for any Turkish advancement towards them. The scouts, however, found a rather large group of gypsies with a rather larger amount of alcohol to sell. So, they bought the booze.

Whoever thought it was a good plan to get very, very drunk before a battle we couldn’t say, however the scouts got very merry and loud and of course this attracted other soldiers who wanted to join it.

The drunken groups where not up for sharing and so fighting began between them, which started to get quite out of control.

Maybe a drunken reveller thought it would be fun. Who knows, but shouts started going around that the Turks where coming.

Unprepared, somewhat drunk, and having soldiers who spoke at least four different languages in the army, the Austrian army situation became extremely chaotic, many soldiers simply ran away, others formed what ranks they could and decided to take on what they thought was the enemy.

In fact, the Turks had not arrived. And they were quickly engaged in blindly and stormily killing each other in the chaos.

When the Ottoman army did arrive a day or so later, they found over 10,000 Austrian soldiers dead or wounded and no-one left to fight them.

Lesson? Well, Sun Tzu wrote: “The supreme art of war is to subdue your enemy without fighting.”

OK, certainly the Austrians in this story subdued themselves – but why? Was fear at the heart of it? Distrust among the different groups forced to co-operate together? Or something else?

In business, it’s possible, sometimes, to sit back and watch your competitors collapse from within as internal rivalries eat them away without you having to do anything but wait.

No matter what, humanity and common sense can prevail. That’s a big statement – so let me share a very big event that gives me the hope to write words like these.

Few of you might have heard the name of Stansilav Petrov, the man who probably saved the world.

Our saviour, Petrov, was a Russian Lieutenant Colonel who was on duty on 26 September 1986 in an early warning bunker designed to give Russia a slight advantage in case of a nuclear strike. And so, it was when, a little after midnight, the computer system he was monitoring reported that an intercontinental nuclear missile had been launched by the USA at the then USSR.

His task was very clear in this situation, sound the alarm to start a multiple warhead counterattack. He had no authority to ignore this alarm, but he did.

Not only did he ignore the first, but a report of four more missiles being launched was duly ignored by him too as his common sense – and sense of humanity – told him that the computer must be malfunctioning. It had to be a mistake, no-one wanted mass global destruction.

After a strong reprimand and intensive investigation, it became clear the alarms where indeed false, the computer system was full of faults, Petrov was right.

And his reward?

A demotion, a nervous breakdown, enforced early retirement, being made a scapegoat for a failed system, and being ashamed to tell his wife for 10 years afterwards until she was about to die of cancer.

Lesson? People don’t always get rewarded for doing the right thing, but doing the right thing will always be right, whatever the personal outcome.

Being a good business leader means – demands – doing the right things.