This is Part 2 of 3 of the interview between Tucker Max and Robert Greene. Part 1 can be seen here.
TM: Who are your favorite five strategic thinkers?
RG: Obviously I’d have to say Napoleon Bonaparte, I consider him the greatest strategist who ever lived. I call him the Mozart of Warfare.
Then I’d have to say somebody like Sun Tzu. We don’t know much about him personally; it seems he was a general of some sort. But his book has had such an impact on strategy that you are forced to ask why–why do people still read Sun Tzu. It is because he has hit upon truths, almost natural laws of war and strategy.
I’d have to rank as one of my personal favorites Miyamoto Musashi who I used a lot in 48 Laws and in 33 Strategies because Musashi was a weirdo and I like weirdos. He was also a strategic genius and he was creative. He wasn’t one of these people who just memorized some way of doing things and repeated it. He was always in the moment, fluid, bringing his individuality, his own way of doing and thinking into his swordfights. He made his own character part of the strategy. Quite a genius.
If we are sticking to the realm of warfare I think Hannibal was one of the greatest military strategists who ever lived. The guy was just unbelievable. He was so inventive, he never did anything you would expect and when you expected the unexpected then he would do the expected, which was unexpected. He had an incredible sense of humor, his soldiers loved him and he had balls. I love these characters throughout the history of war who don’t give a damn, who don’t go by the book.
On an organizational level, I would rank Genghis Khan up there. He transformed the loose Mongol association of tribes into the greatest fighting force mankind has ever witnessed. A form of mobile warfare that has been studied to death and influenced such operations as Desert Storm. Speaking of which, I would also have to include a personal favorite of mine, Colonel John Boyd, inventor of the OODA loop, and whose writings and thoughts on strategy had a great impact on Desert Storm. I personally like him because he was a maverick and a guerrilla fighter in the battles of life. Strategy infused every one of his actions. I guess that’s six. Hard to pick just five.
TM: So your favorite is Napoleon–what puts him above the others?
RG: He had this period of ten years, 1796 – 1806, where he was involved in almost constant warfare, one campaign after another, and he won them all. And this for a man who was young, and relatively inexperienced as a leader. An unprecedented ten years in warfare, but he not only defeated the opposition, he absolutely obliterated and annihilated them and not because of superior technology or numbers, but because of superior strategy. What was great about Napoleon was that he had a feel for war so he could be in the midst of a very chaotic battle where something went wrong, where everything went wrong, and if you know warfare at that period, it was incredibly chaotic and unpredictable. He would never lose his cool, he had an incredible presence of mind and he was able to think in the moment. His philosophy in life, one I ascribe to, was to say that nothing that happens is bad, or worth despairing. Everything that seems bad contains the seed of the opposite, an opportunity, a turnaround. He was the supreme opportunist. So in a battle like Austerlitz, which is probably the greatest battle of his career and my favorite, everything went wrong, and it looked like he was going to be crushed–he was surrounded, he was in the worst possible position. And he turned that into his greatest victory ever by playing upon his opponent’s arrogance and over confidence. I think that’s genius, to never lose your cool, because things are always going to go bad or wrong and anybody would wilt under that pressure and this man, Napoleon, not only did not wilt, he was at his best.
TM: Who of those currently alive, really gets strategy? What politician or public figures do you think you could have potentially included in your books?
RG: I don’t know, its hard to say. History is so weird and people we think are brilliant now might be forgotten in a few years. Like Clinton, he’s an interesting politician, a man with genuine charisma, but as a great strategist, I am not so sure. I’m personally fascinated by John F. Kennedy, whom I consider superior to Clinton on many levels. His campaign against Nixon in 1960 has to be considered one of the great achievements, and in many ways a blueprint for Democrats now.
In business, I’m fascinated by the two Google guys because I think they are playing the game in a very interesting way. They are able to adapt to the new order of things, to the chaos of our times, and they are very free flowing with their strategy. Under the category nefarious and manipulative, I would have to rank Karl Rove as a master of the dark side of power.
TM: If you can get George Bush elected twice, you must be smart.
RG: Of course it helps that he was facing two of the weakest candidates in modern history– Gore and John Kerry. Nonetheless, Rove is an interesting strategist and I often tell people that the Democrats are perhaps missing their own Karl Rove, maybe not so ugly, but certainly on his level of strategy. I would like to audition for the role. We shall see. At some point, I am going to break Rove down on this blog, analyze his strategic style, and anticipate his moves in the coming elections. It is a game of chess.
TM: You drew from most all of the great strategy texts to write 48 Laws and 33 Strategies, and did an amazing job of synthesizing and expanding their ideas. Yet, even though you are widely read, I can’t help but notice the conspicuous absence of The Meditations by Marcus Aurelius. Is there any particular reason you don’t give much time to what is considered one of the great strategic texts of history?
RG: On the level of generalship, I don’t consider him one of the greats. Among the Romans, I rank Scipio Africanus and Caesar as the two most interesting strategists.
TM: Granted, but Marcus Aurelius is considered one of the great leaders of western history and it was The Meditations that taught people like Napoleon and Winston Churchill how to lead.
RG: There’s only so much research I can do. I read Marcus Aurelius when I was in college. All I can say is that I messed up, you’re right–I should have included him in the 48 Laws. I’m reading him now thanks to you, because you inspired that [ed note. I had shown Robert these questions prior to the interview]. He had some amazing quotes, and one of my favorites is one in which he compares life to a boxing match: if the other guy hits you hard in the head, you don’t whine and complain and get all pouty and upset. That’s boxing, man. And that’s life as well. Somebody messes with you, plays a game on you, don’t get angry or upset or resentful. It’s just part of life, the brutal arena. Shut up and hit back. I wish I had included that quote in my first book, but it’s too late.
TM: What are your favorite books? In or out of the strategy realm, what do you read?
RG: In the strategy / political realm its Machiavelli, obviously, The Prince. Everything of Machiavelli, in fact, including his letters and his plays. What a mind he possessed. I love Russian novels–Dostoyevsky, Gogol, Bulgakov. And I read a lot of history. I recently read a book about Magellan that was really good called Over the Edge of the World. What a story! And then, Touching the Void, the ultimate mountain climbing saga. Too many books to mention at this point.
TM: I’ve made no it no secret that you are one of my literary heroes. Who are your literary heroes, i.e. what has influenced your style and who do look up to as a writer?
RG: There would be a couple of them, when I was in high school I went on this tear of reading Nietzsche and I read everything he ever wrote and he was probably the writer who had the biggest influence on me. He’s a little bit fancy, his writing is a little bit flowery but … he had a huge influence on me. Then a writer like Laclos who wrote Dangerous Liaisons was a hero of mine, combining my two great interests–strategy and seduction. When I was young, one of my favorites was Ralph Waldo Emerson. His essay on Self-Reliance is the greatest thing you could ever read for inspiration and insight. I would say the lack of self-reliance for any individual is the cause of misery and depression.
TM: What is the reaction to your work in the scholarly community? Do you get much traction there?
RG: No, not much. There have been a few universities that have used the Power book for instructional purposes. I know of a few professors scattered about who have their students read these books. As far as the scholarship is concerned no one has come up with any examples of me where I’ve messed up my research because I’m very meticulous about it. Its just that my way of using history is a little bit out of fashion, but I think its actually coming back into fashion. I’m kind of against the whole postmodernist / deconstructionist idea of history, which tends to devalue individuals, the accomplishments of great men and women and their influence on history. I happen to believe in the heroic school of history and that a man like Napoleon has had an inordinate impact on the world. This is not cool to the academics. But I could really care less.
TM: You’ve said before that you have a lot of anger. Where does that anger come from, what is the source of your rage? I’ve found that a lot of successful people are driving by something from their past, and that it is that unresolved issue that is really what drives them, not necessarily the goal in front of them, and you seem to be driven by that anger. What is the source?
RG: Well I noticed one thing when I’m writing that if I don’t feel that anger I don’t write very well. So even when I was writing all three books, particularly the first and the third I have to remind myself of something bad that someone did or something that I really hate, then my writing would get much better. You know, a lot of my issues happened when I was younger and I was quite idealistic about life and I was inevitably disappointed that people’s actions were not governed by ideas or doing the best job possible but were always bringing in politics, and by politics I don’t mean official, Congressional politics, I mean politicking in the office and it would really anger me that they would do something behind my back because they didn’t like me or because they were envious and they weren’t straight forward. This has accumulated over the years. I don’t mind if people do things that are bad or wrong, or evil, I do them myself. That is part of the nature of the human animal. But what I cannot stand are people who play righteous and moral, and use that as a kind of power. They are not honest about themselves. They cloak their manipulations with a cover of morality or selflessness. They make others feel guilty. They use passive aggression. That is what makes me angry. And I like feeding off that anger like a fire.
TM: Does the fact that all these people who used to stab you in the back or whatever, they’re still nobodies and you’re Robert Greene and you’ve sold a million books and are read by everybody, does that make it better?
RG: Yeah, it does. It is nice, to win in the end. But not everyone who messed with me was small. One person who messed with me was Bill O’Reilly, he’s still pretty big.
TM: What did he do?
RG: I was on his show for the 48 Laws of Power, he had me on twice and the first time he just loved me, “Oh you’re fantastic, I loved it, I want you on again,” that kind of stuff. And he totally set me up. I come on a second time and he just did a total number on me. Basically depicting me as a kind of Don Corleone of power. He got me to talk about Lyndon Johnson as a power player, then cut me off and said, and this was the man responsible for 50,000 young Americans dying in Vietnam, as if my book can be linked to such tragedies. A master of manipulation. But yeah, in the end having success is the best revenge. And I thank all of these people in the acknowledgments of the 48 Laws. They made the book possible, inspired it in fact.
TM: For many guys my age, until your book came along, reading Mario Puzo’s book, The Godfather was what helped us understand strategy. Why do you never talk about Vito Corleone? Is it because he is a fictional character?
RG: I read it a long time ago and…it resonated with me in the moment, but I just never went back to it. I have a feeling that unconsciously a lot of things in there ended up getting in the book.
Part 3 of the Robert Greene Interview can be seen here