Revolutionary Advice for Overmatched Competitors

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
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