At a critical junction in the American Revolution, George Washington used superior leadership to turn the tables on a stronger competitor – and so can you.
Part Two of a special President's Day guest post from Hay Groups Signe Spencer:
Most business categories these days are dominated by one or two oversized competitors, with resources to match. That can leave smaller companies unwilling to commit to a head-to-head battle.
But in my experience, effective leadership can level the playing field.
And I think George Washington would agree.
I base that assertion on a recent reading of David Hackett Fischer’s Washington’s Crossing, the acclaimed book that examines Washington’s leadership during the early months of the American revolution.
Washington’s army was locked in a desperate fight against the global superpower of the era. The British army’s professional soldiers were superbly trained, disciplined against the chaos of battle, equipped with the latest weaponry and led by experienced career officers.
By contrast, Washington’s army was made up of volunteers and local militiamen with little or no formal military training, led by amateurs with limited (or less) command experience.
Not surprisingly, the British had won a series of one-sided victories, capturing New York City and pushing the Americans all the way across New Jersey. And on January 2, 1777, they had the Americans cornered outside Trenton. Washington had no clear line of retreat, and he faced an almost certain defeat if he stayed and fought.
Moreover, the stakes were immense: If the Americans lost, the army might simply have disappeared as dispirited volunteers returned to their homes. The revolution could well have ended right there.
Effective leadership turns the tables. But the revolution didn’t end. Washington and his officers, joined by prominent local residents, devised a third alternative – a night march leading to a dawn attack from the rear – that defeated the mighty British army.
And the principles of effective leadership that helped Washington score his unexpected victory can help any overmatched organization gain an advantage over a stronger rival.
1. Be realistic. Optimism is a wonderful quality in a leader. But when you’re leading a team against a formidable opponent, whistling in the dark rarely earns you a victory. You simply can’t sugarcoat a challenging problem. If you team members already know the true dimensions of the issue, you’ll lose credibility; if they don’t, they won’t be able to contribute appropriate and meaningful solutions.
Washington didn’t mince words when he opened his strategy session. He painted an accurate, if daunting, picture of the army’s dire situation. Fischer describes Washington’s assessment, as remembered by an officer who was present:
“In case of an action a defeat was to be apprehended; a retreat by the only route thought of, down the river, would be difficult and precarious. The general concluded by saying that the loss of the corps he commanded might be fatal to the country.”
2. Make everyone a contributor. When you up against a formidable competitor, you need all the good ideas you can get. An open leadership stance, characterized by a willingness to listen to ideas from all sides, and evaluate them based solely on merit, is essential if you’re going to coax every team member to actively and effectively participate in creating a solution.
Washington openly solicited ideas, and guided the open discussion as ideas were advanced and discussed. He didn’t preempt his subordinates by offering his ideas first, and didn’t constrain the discussion with a heavy hand. Nevertheless, no one who participated doubted that he was in charge.
3. Uncover and exploit all your assets. Regardless of the size and resources you’re up against, you will certainly have some competitive advantages of your own. If you’re facing a global competitor, you probably have a better knowledge of your particular market and its conditions; if you’re up against a much bigger organization, you are probably more nimble. Find your advantages, and put them to work.
Washington and his officers consulted civilians who lived in the area – an asset not available to the British. Two of these local residents ended up guiding the army over little-used farm roads, enabling them to march around the British during the night.
4. Execute your plan with vigor. When your team develops an effective approach or plan against a competitor, put it into action quickly and decisively. A long-term siege favors the competitor with deeper pockets – but prompt, bold and resolute movement can change the dynamics in your favor.
When Washington decided to follow the plan he and his officers had developed, he immediately put it into action. Officers organized their men for the night march, leaving behind a shadow force of a few hundred to tend fires and fool the British into thinking the army had stayed put. They were able to launch an attack from the other side of the British army as dawn broke.
Taking the approach outlined here against a stronger competitor requires commitment, clear thinking – and courage. And there is no guarantee of success.
But through effective leadership and resolution action, you can improve your organization’s chances and business results – and in today’s competitive environment, every organization needs every edge it can get.
Signe Spencer is a senior consultant and the global practice leader for capability assessment at Hay Group, where she has studied the connections between leadership and organizational success. She can be reached at Signe.Spencer@haygroup.com.