Lessons from Decisive Battles in History

Even before the Pandemic hit, I was already a fan of The Great Courses. In Toronto, you can watch most (all?) of them via Kanopy, and because of the Pandemic, they are free!

I often surprise myself with the courses that catch my eye. A pleasant surprise was The Decisive Battles of World History. History can often be presented as a list of dates with events attached – but battles have conflict, a clear story and winners and losers. Really, what more could you ask for in for compelling viewing.

But I took away a few lessons I think I can actually apply in real life:

  • Battles often go to someone who understands the use of a new technology. As a digital champion, I felt this one in my bones. Whether it was understanding the benefit of a more mobile chariot, adapting the size of a shield or deploying a long bow, there is a long history of those who exploit uneven adoption of technology to succeed. Noted.
  • It is not enough to have innovated in the past, you must continue to innovate. Again, creativity and adaption wins. The Romans overtook the Macedonians who had seen so much success under Alexander, not because they copied their tactics, but because they understood what made their tactics superior – and found the next evolution. Today, we’d call that “Creative Disruption.”
  • Don’t learn the wrong lessons from the past, repeating a tactic because it worked once is folly – understand why it worked. There was a great story about a ship that rammed another ship in a battle, leading to a decisive victory. It became the received wisdom that ramming was the way to win. But, this failed in most actual applications because it wasn’t the ramming that was the genius – it was that they deployed a completely unexpected tactic and caught the other ship off-guard. By repeating the ramming, they actually did the opposite of what worked in the first battle, because everyone came to expect it. The ships got heavier and tougher, but this made them less mobile and adaptable, so they could be less creative.
  • The human factor is the most important. A surprisingly small number of the battles went to an army with more numbers. Often it was a fearful General making a mistake, or an army gaining the element of surprise that created the upper hand. No matter how great your strategy, people still have to execute it, so you need to keep their hearts and minds.