Now, I know that this is not the usual way that people discuss what is currently taking place in the world. Instead, we hear much about the banking industry, the corruption within it, and its preying upon helpless consumers; the new trading technology that makes it harder to think and act for the long-term; the collusion of government in this scheme, and the lack of regulation; on and on. All of these factors are real; they contain elements of truth. But they are not the source of the underlying disturbance. The reality, what is really going on underneath, is that we are currently experiencing a change as profound as any in history.
After the Industrial Revolution of the 19th century and the Mass Production revolution of the 20th, with its emphasis on standardization and marketing, we are now, finally, entering the Information Age. This means a flattening of power structures, more fluidity and chaos, an accelerated pace of innovation. This represents a fundamental change for which we are not prepared.
When we face situations that are novel, we tend to react in one of several ways. We try to deny the reality. We hold on even more firmly to the past and how things were done. We interpret events according to how we want to see them. Or, we do the opposite–we succumb to all of the chaos and confusion, believing that all of the old rules can be tossed out and that anything goes. We try this and we try that, never with much thought or calculation. Both responses are reactive and emotional. They do not represent an attempt to actually come to terms with the changes going on and work to exploit them in a rational manner.
To really gain power, there is only one way to orient ourselves in such turbulent times–by adopting a different way of thinking, what I prefer to call “strategy in depth.” I differentiate this from the normal idea of strategy, which is so often confused with merely planning and thinking ahead. Strategy in depth is a mental discipline that can take years to acquire.
To give you an idea of what I mean by this, I like to employ the following metaphor: business, or life, is a kind of battlefield. On the ground, fighting the daily battles to make your business competitive and to keep your army advancing together can get quite confusing. Sometimes those on your side act more like enemies or obstructers. There is a lot of smoke, sudden shifts in the battle and chaos. On the ground, you have no real perspective of what is really going on. You are constantly reacting to this or to that. If you were able to stand on a ladder and elevate your perspective some ten feet, suddenly you would have a different idea about what is happening. You would see some patterns to the fighting. You thought you were advancing but in fact you seem to be retreating. There’s more going on than you had imagined.
If you were able to somehow elevate to a hundred feet, what you saw at ten feet would now prove to be an illusion. You would realize that the battles you are fighting today are not really worth your attention, because on the horizon something much worse is taking shape. Your sense of a pattern to the battle would now be more accurate than before, and your strategies more rational and effective. If somehow you could raise your perspective to a mountaintop you would have the clarity of the gods on Mount Olympus, seeing far and wide. What you had seen at a hundred feet elevation would prove to have been somewhat inaccurate or piecemeal.
People who remain on the ground operate in what I call tactical hell. They are constantly reacting to what others bring and this creates a kind of constant wave effect–each reverberation of an action/reaction keeps you locked in this mode, your emotions continually buffeted by this back and forth. You might think you are being rational, but you are far from it. The view from ten feet is better, but still rather hellish. You can delude yourself that you have real perspective, when you are simply seeing a small piece of the puzzle. The higher you go, the more you enter the realm of strategy, which requires depth of thinking and true perspective.
In normal times, it is quite difficult to elevate your perspective–it is simply unnatural for the human animal to not react, to not get caught up in the moment. In times of confusion and change like ours, this process is made that much harder. Add to that the incredible distractions that new technology has inserted into our lives and it can become almost impossible. In such circumstances, we tend to take pieces of information from the media, which inundates us with all kinds of snapshots of the moment, and elevate them into some kind of trend; we give these pieces disproportionate weight and act on them without a sense of real direction or depth. This confusion tends to perpetuate itself as more and more people are locked in this tactical hell.
To be a strategist in depth in this era, you must work at acquiring several skills. First and primary is the ability to control your own emotions that tend to cloud your sense of judgment. What matters is not your ego or appearing right or being admired, but winning. To win you must be realistic and see things as they are. From this base of inner balance, you study history and its many lessons; you immerse yourself in the present and the trends that are taking shape. You encompass in your considerations not merely the battle in front of you, but the larger war, the cultural and social factors–everything. You understand what is happening, the historic moment we are living through. Once you reach the proper elevation, you can then make rational decisions–moving with calibrated boldness or biding your time.
In times of great change it might seem that there are no patterns to discern in the present and nothing to be learned from history. After all, events are unprecedented. But this is an illusion born out of our confusion. There have been other periods in history of comparable change and turmoil. In looking at them in depth we can see certain patterns–why most people succumb to the chaos but a few manage to rise to the top. Those who succeed generally follow the same simple path and adhere to a few basic strategic principles that are particularly relevant to revolutionary times.
To give you an idea what I am talking about, I want to take you inside the mind of the man whom I consider to be the greatest strategist who ever lived–Napoleon Bonaparte.
Stay tuned for the next installment, or read The Descent of Power as an ebook.