One question that has always bogged me is why people and businesses plateau after a considerable successful run. Why do we often find ourselves stuck in the old way of doing things and miss on new opportunities? Why do we remain at the same point for a very long time with no progress?
Commonly, when we are faced with a new challenge, we often rely on our past. In most cases, it serves us well but in some cases, it weighs us down and causes untold misery to us. Our relationship to the past could be in the form of repetition of tried processes, formulas and systems or the memory of old successes or failures. If you truly aspire to create new success especially in a crisis or during a dull plateau, you must learn to force yourself to head off in a new direction, even though it will involve risk.
What you may lose in security and comfort, you will gain in surprise and the discovery of new ways of doing things. New ways of thinking and doing things will lead to great innovations that could give you the much needed competitive edge in business and untold satisfaction in your life.
A lesson from Napoleon Bonaparte
The French General, Napoleon Bonaparte’s fast rise to power is rivaled only by a handful of men. In 1793, at only 26 years of age, he rose from the rank of captain in the French Revolutionary army to Brigadier General. 3 years later, at 29, he became the leader of the French force in Italy in the fight against the Austrians. He crushed them that year and repeated the same feat 3 years later. At 32, he became the first Consul of France and at 35 rose to become Emperor. A year later he humiliated the Russian and Austrian armies at the Battle of Austerlitz.
Napoleon was regarded by many not only as a great general but a genius and master strategist. Not everyone was impressed though. There were a few Prussian generals who believed that he had merely had a good run with luck. In cases where Napoleon had been aggressive and rash in war, they believed that his opponents had been weak and timid. If he ever faced the Prussians, these Generals believed he would be revealed as a great fake.
One of these Prussian generals was Friedrich Ludwig. He came from one of Germany’s oldest aristocratic families with an illustrious military record. He had begun service at an early age under Fredrick the Great; the man who had single-handedly made Prussia a great power. Friedrich had risen through the ranks to become a general at 50 –young by Prussian standards.
Friedrich believed that success in war depended on discipline, organization and the application of superior strategies developed by well-trained military minds. In line with these, Prussian soldiers would perform elaborate maneuvers as precisely as a machine. For them, war was a mathematical affair and they believed the French would panic and crumble in the face of the disciplined Prussians bringing an end to the Napoleonic myth.
Prussians declare War
In August 1806, Friedrich and his fellow general finally got what they wanted. King Wilhelm III of Prussia declared war on Napoleon in 6 weeks. He then asked his generals to present to him a plan to crush the French.
Friedrich was ecstatic. This would be the climax of his career. He had already been planning for years about how to beat Napoleon and quickly presented his plan at the first strategy session. It consisted of precise marches to attack the French as advanced through southern Prussia. The final attack would be in oblique formation- which had been Frederick the Great’s favorite tactic. The other generals presented their plans- variations used by Fredrick the Great. After lengthy discussions and arguments for weeks, the King finally stepped in and created a compromise strategy they would all agree to.
In the first week of October, that same year, before the king was to declare war, the generals got disturbing news. An intelligence-gathering mission had revealed that Napoleon knew about their plans through his spies. But the Prussians had a head start and once their war machine started moving, nothing could stop it.
Napoleon’s army which they had believed to have split into small groups had now merged and were headed east. Before the generals had time to adjust, Napoleon’s army turned north headed for Berlin, the heart of Prussia.
The generals argued and were indecisive, moving their troops here and there, trying to decide on a point of attack. There was panic in the camps. Finally, the King ordered a retreat. They would reassemble to the north with Friedrich’s troops protecting the retreat.
Napoleon and Friedrich face-off
Napoleon finally caught up with Friedrich, near the village of Vierzehnheilgen. For Friedrich, this was the battle he had so desperately wanted. The numbers on both sides were equal. However, when the fighting began, the French fought in an unruly fashion, in what seemed like mingled confusion and disorder. In contrast, the Prussian troops stuck to a tight order.
The fighting went back and forth until finally the French capture the village. In anger, Friedrich orders his troops to retake the village. In a ritual that dated back to Fredrick the Great, the drum major beat out a signal and the Prussian troops reformed their positions in perfect parade order, with their flags flying high, ready to attack. They were in the open and the French troops were now well guarded by the village walls and on rooftops.
The Prussians fell easily to the French marksmen. Confused, Friedrich ordered his soldiers to halt and change position. Like clockwork, the drums beat again and the Prussians marched with magnificent precision- a sight to behold- even amidst the flying French arrows. The lines were soon decimated by the relentless French.
Friedrich had never seen such an army. The French soldiers attacked like madmen. Unlike his disciplined soldiers, they moved on their own but with a method to their madness. Suddenly as if from nowhere, the French rushed towards them from both sides threatening to surround them. Friedrich ordered a retreat. The battle was over. Like dominos, the Prussians quickly crumbled, one fortress falling after another. Soon nothing remained of the once-mighty Prussian army.
What can we learn from this battle?
The Prussians had fallen 50 years behind the times. They were using old strategies instead of responding to present circumstances, they were relying on what had worked in the past. The soldiers moved like robots in a parade and the army as a whole moved slowly. The generals ignored many signs that warned of the impending disaster. They had 10 years to study Napoleon and his innovation strategies- to understand the fluidity and speed with which his troops moved.
Napoleon, on the other hand, had learnt what was needed to always adapt and innovate as he moved from one level of success to another. He had learnt that the better anyone adapts his thoughts and plans to changing circumstances, the more realistic his response will be to them.
We could break down the tactics he uses as we ourselves adapt to overcome the lethargy caused by old success. They are as follows:
1. Erase the memory of the last challenge
The last challenge or battle you fought is a danger to you, even if you triumphed. If you were victorious, you are likely to repeat the same strategies you used, since success makes us complacent and lazy. On the other hand, if you lost, you may be nervous and indecisive. Do not think about the last challenge. Instead, do whatever you can to remove it from your mind.
One of baseball’s best hitters, Ted Williams made a point to always forget his last at-bat. Whenever he would hit a home run or get a strikeout, he tried his best to put it behind him. He would remind himself that even against the same pitcher, no two bats are ever the same. He wanted to have an open mind.
It’s no wonder the success he got in his career as a 19-time All-Star, a 2-time recipient of the American League Most Valuable Player Award, a 6-time American League batting champion and a 2-time Triple Crown winner. He finished his playing career with a .344 batting average, 521 home runs, and a .482 on-base percentage, the highest of all time.
2. Reexamine your old beliefs and principles
Napoleon was once asked what principles of war he followed and he replied that he followed none. His genius can be attributed to his ability to play the hand he was dealt with, to quickly respond to the circumstances at hand and make the most of what he had been given.
The best strategy for you should be in your ability to take up any strategy. Learn to be brutal with traditions, with the past. Examine the old way of doing things before adopting others’ conventions as your own.
Whenever you are faced with a new situation, it might be best to imagine you know nothing and you are learning all over again. When you clear your head of what you know, you allow yourself to be educated by your present experience.
3. Keep your mind moving
When we were children, our minds topped. We were always open to new possibilities and experiences and absorbed as much as possible. We were able to learn fast because everything around our world excited us. Whenever we felt upset or frustrated, we would always find some creative way to get what we wanted. We quickly forgot the problem as soon as something new crossed our path.
The greatest strategists of old like Napoleon were childlike in this respect. Sometimes, they even acted like children. The reason is simple. The superior strategist sees things just as they are not as they wish they were. They are highly sensitive to opportunities and even dangers. They acknowledge, that nothing remains the same in life. For this reason, they change with great mental fluidity. They respond to the moment like children. Their minds are always moving and they are always curious and excited. They will always forget the past quickly- the present is too interesting for them.
Aristotle, the Greek thinker, believed that life was defined by movement. What does not move is dead. Whatever has mobility and speed has more life, more possibilities. We all start out with this agile mind just like Napoleon. As we get older and have a few successes and failures, we slowly become more like the Prussians.
If we could go back to your younger days, many of us would like to recapture our looks, physical fitness, and other simple pleasures. Most important of all, I believe would be to recapture the fluidity of mind we once possessed.
Whenever you find yourself stuck on a particular idea or subject, resentment or an obsession, force yourself past it. Distract yourself with something else as a child would. Find something new, something worthy your concentration attention to be absorbed by.
You will soon learn, like the greats before you, the key to creating new success and happiness at every level of your life.