Great Strategists: Carl von Clausewitz

Carl von Clausewitz was a Prussian General during the Napoleonic Wars, whose book On War is acclaimed, along with Sun Tzu’s Art of War, as one of the original, defining texts on military strategy.

William Pietersen from Columbia Business School has written an excellent short (~1500 words) summary of von Clausewitz’s relevance to contemporary strategists.  Here are the five key points he highlights:

  1. Why do we need strategy?  According to von Clausewitz “The talent of the strategist is to identify the decisive point and to concentrate everything on it, removing forces from secondary fronts and ignoring lesser objectives”.  In other words strategy is the necessary response to the inescapable reality of limited resources.
  2. The strength of any strategy lies in its simplicity. Quoting von Clausewitz, “Simplicity in planning fosters energy in execution. Strong determination in carrying through a simple idea is the surest route to success. The winning simplicity we seek, the simplicity of genius, is the result of intense mental engagement.” Pietersen suggests from this that “No strategy document should ever be longer than 10 pages.”
  3. Strategy needs to be dynamic. One of von Clausewitz’s most famous quotes is “no strategy ever survives the first engagement with the enemy.”  He also said “strategy [must] contain the seeds of its constant rejuvenation — a way to chart strategy in an unstable environment.”  Pietersen adds that strategy should never make the mistake of thinking that competitors are standing still.
  4. Strategy is all about adoption. According to von Clausewitz, “it is at moral, not physical strength that all military action is directed … Moral factors, then, are the ultimate determinants in war”.  Pietersen add a quote from Henri Amiel: “Without passion man is a latent force, like the flint, which awaits the shock of the iron before it can give forth its spark.”
  5. Strategy and planning are not the same thing. Strategy is about picking the right battles. Tactics are about successfully executing those battles.  Strategy’s key role is to define a winning proposition, a rallying call from which all decisions and activities can then be planned. Strategy first, planning afterwards.

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