A Theory of Control

The word control does not have the most positive connotation in our culture. Expressions like control freak speak to this. But my idea of power is directly related to the concept of control. First and foremost there is the idea of self-control. The only real power that matters in the end is power over yourself and the ability to master your emotions. Top on the list is impatience, your need for immediate gratification. Other emotions would be fear, which must be confronted and faced down. The desire to be liked and admired is an equal impediment, as is uncontrollable anger. You can never gain complete control over these emotions, nor would you want to. All that is asked is more control than you had in the past, more control than your rivals. The clearer your head is of such emotions, the better strategies and decisions you will hit upon. (For more on this, please consult chapters one two, three, four and twelve in The 33 Strategies of War)

Directed outward, this means controlling to some extent the actions of your rivals. As I progressed in the The 33 Strategies of War I came to the conclusion that the winning side had inevitably gained control over the dynamic. This idea started to obsess me. I realized that this was a key to not only warfare and strategy, but to almost all aspects of life in which there is competition. Events in the newspaper at the time I was writing the book seemed to corroborate my theory.

First there was the Iraq War: as it progressed, it became clear that the various enemies of our military were controlling the dynamic. They could mount their terror attacks at even a low success rate, but each one put us on the defensive, made us react and overreact. The US military kept having to readjust its strategy, a sure sign of losing control.

I watched carefully the failed Kerry campaign of 2004 and it was obvious to me that at almost each step of the way Kerry was responding to events that had been framed or provoked by the Republicans. In general, even to this day, I see the Democrats reacting to the actions and words of Bush and his team, instead of setting the agenda in an aggressive manner. They could very well win the elections this year, but as I point out in The 33 Strategies of War, it is often how you win that matters. You can win in a way that leads to future defeats, and you can lose in a way that leads to future victories. Winning in a defensive, reactive manner can very well set up a loss the next round because you have no control over the debate.

I became obsessed with following this in sports. I have always wondered about the phenomenon of momentum, particularly in my favorite sports of football and basketball. I came to the conclusion that there is inevitably a turning point in such games in which momentum shifts, one side takes over, has the edge and applies it all the way. So often, we see one team grab a lead, but as the game progresses they fall back and finally lose. In my theory, there is a point in the contest in which they lose control, mentally and physically, and the winning side rides this to victory. I could watch a basketball game, for instance, and see in the first quarter who was going to win, even though the score may have been very much against the side I had chosen. I judged this by which side I believed was controlling the tempo and the style of play, among other factors. I had a very, very high success rate in calling the winner in the first or second quarter.

In business, I have been involved in looking at the “war” between Google and Microsoft and it is my contention that in many ways the smaller company is driving the agenda, controlling the dynamic, which to me means they will one day prevail in this war.

I also applied this theory to my friends’ personal relationships and to my own. A married friend of mine is in a particularly bad relationship, with a wife who explodes on him periodically. At first glance she seems rather frail. In social affairs he is the one to shine and dominate. But his fear of her is great, particularly his fear of her bouts of anger. This draws a severe limit on his actions. She has found a way to turn her physical weakness into a real strength, completely dominating his mind. I don’t find this kind of control healthy or good, but it is nevertheless quite powerful. According to the psychologist and writer Jay Haley, in relationships humans are always signaling degrees of control in very subtle ways. Often times the person who seems stronger is not the one who controls the dynamic at all.

I am only sketching this theory out for you, but I invite you to try it out on your own lives. When reading the paper and analyzing events in the news, when following a game, or looking at your own career and relationships, analyze the picture and try to determine which side has more control over the dynamic. This is rarely black and white. Each side will have its strengths and its moments, but in general shifts and trends can be detected. In relationships, or in your career, this can be highly subjective and you will tend to think you are the one in control, or you will see yourself as the victim of the other, the unjust target of their controlling behavior. There are ways to read the signs correctly, but you have to place your own ego to the side.

Of course you cannot control everything in life and those who seek to do so most often end up losing control. There is a strange paradox here, one I outline in WAR in discussing Napoleon. Napoleon gave up tight control over his army in order to gain greater control over the fluid battles he initiated. George Marshall did the same with the Pentagon. And there is power that can come from accepting certain things and relinquishing control for the moment, as I explained in the Retreating strategy in The 33 Strategies of War. But to relinquish control in certain moments is the very key to gaining control of the dynamic later on.

We have not even touched upon seduction here. It is my contention that a successful seducer will manage to disguise the control element, to make the victim believe he or she has equal or greater control of the situation. A lot of this requires patience and intelligence: you allow the other side to have their way, to decide where you are going, to turn down your advances, to ask for this and that. But your allowing this is what keeps you in control of the situation. The seducer controls the dynamic, often by stepping back. A masterful dancer does not make the woman even feel she is being led at all, when in fact he controls all of the movements and the tempo.

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