How Wellington fought the battle of Waterloo before Napoleon had even left Elba

The Artful Strategist has a lesson in the geography of anticipation.

Exactly two hundred years ago this week, a score of British infantry battalions, formed up in squares and scattered across a ridge south of Brussels, were under relentless attack from ten thousand French Cavalry who were hurling themselves and their mounts against the battered rows of red jackets and steel bayonets. This was the afternoon of June 18th, and one of the most famous battles in history had reached its most precarious moment when individual bravery counted far more than grand strategy.

Just one hundred days before, Napoleon gave his captors the slip from Elba and landed at Golfe Juan with a handful of his personal troops. Soon the Emperor was marching over the Alps on his way back towards Paris and the alarums of another European war.

Napoleon was Europe’s favourite bogeyman and its other crowned heads were anxiously mustering armies intent on ending once and for all his pursuit of la gloire. In what today we might recognise as a classic challenger brand manoeuvre, Napoleon decided that his best strategy was to defeat in quick succession the two still separated British and Prussian armies gathering on his borders in the north so that he could broker a truce and/or turn his attention to the three other armies forming more tardily in the east.

Napoleon moved quickly and his army crossed the frontier at dawn on the 15th June 1815. Word soon reached the commander of the Anglo-Dutch army, Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington, who with an appropriate sense of a good story was just preparing to go to a dance and famously quipped that Napoleon had ‘humbugged’ him.

Nonetheless Wellington determined that in what was to be their first (and indeed, last) battlefield encounter, he would now return the compliment in his own strategic terms.

He would achieve this by choosing where he was going to give battle, somewhere he had studied and already knew well: It was a place the Duke had discovered while Napoleon was still contemplating an escape from Elba.

Throughout history, the ability to choose good ground has been one of the most important attributes of successful generals. Knowing the right battlefield geography was key to the success of Hannibal at Cannae, Robert Bruce at Bannockburn and the Union cavalry commander Buford, who though massively outnumbered, was able to hold the high ground at Gettysburg against General Lee’s Virginians till the Iron Brigade came to his relief and probably saved the Union.

As a general, Wellington had a marvellously instinctive sense of terrain and collected potential battlefields like some painters collect landscapes. In the summer of 1814, when Europe had been restored to peace, he was travelling on diplomatic duties through what was then the Kingdom of Netherlands when he saw a number of places which he noted were ‘good positions for an army’.

One of these was a wide valley between two ridges situated on the main road from France to Brussels. So if war were to break out again, this would be a possible invasion route. The location went into his commonplace book.

A year later, with panic breaking out in the streets of Brussels but with the British officer class nonchalantly getting togged-up for the Duchess of Richmond’s ball, Wellington was able to show his staff exactly where he was going to stop the Napoleonic double whammy.

It was on the northern ridge known as Mont St Jean. We know it today as Waterloo.

Precept: It’s good to maintain a state of healthy paranoia and to develop a heightened appreciation of what may be good ground to compete on. As the ancient Chinese strategist Sun Tzu puts it: ‘In time of peace, prepare for war; in time of war, prepare for peace.’

Poetry is language at its most distilled and most powerful – Rita Dove

What strategists have to learn from poets…

Outside of the classrooms where ambitious MBA students practice with matrices and models garnered from seemingly ever thicker textbooks of strategy, you’ll find in workplaces everywhere, the mayhem of business as usual, where long suffering teams find themselves suddenly involved in yet another strategic review. Here, you’ll see rolls of flip charts, decks of semi-digested analysis and extended but partial summaries of the status quo. Attracted to SWOT charts like moths to a flame, strategy groups often show great enthusiasm for the format but fail to appreciate its proper function, as the unfortunate reader’s energy is slowly but steadily punctured by a relentless attack of bullet points.

Rita Frances Dove is a Pulitzer Prize winning poet, a US Poet Laureate and Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress, and her insight on the language of poetry is also a marvelous coaching tip on the art of strategy. Distillation is one of the essential thought processing skills required by the poet; it also the most important challenge facing a strategic planner.

If you had to define the essence of strategic thinking in just two words, you could do a lot worse than choose Diagnosis and Manifesto. This is because the planner not only has to take a wide angled view of the world, absorb its stimulus and abstract the key issues facing our ‘brand’, but also propose a manifesto that persuades and mobilises. Like a poet, the strategist must focus on both the quality and quantity of the language he employs. Twitter, the popular social media micro-blogging site provide us with a helpful framework that limits posts to 140 characters. Acting like a beautiful constraint, the Tweet is now the perfect thought processor for crafting strategic intent.

The second half of Professor Dove’s quotation provokes us to consider the tremendous value of language leveraged to inspire and bring strategy to action. The well-armoured poet will deploy a stock of rhetorical devices and imagery, the music of rhythm and the force of repetition, not to mention the shocking disrespect for the rules of grammar.

Consider this famous extract from John Milton’s Paradise Lost in which power language has been brilliantly used to communicate strategic intent. It features one of the great challenger brands of literature, The Devil.

In Book One of Paradise Lost, Satan and his cohort of angels have been cast down and banished from heaven and morale is understandably low. At some sort of Miltonic imagined away-day, the fallen angels each get to present their thoughts and analysis, but it is this strategically distilled and powerful speech of Satan’s that carries the day:

The mind is its own place, and in it
Can make a Heav’n of Hell, a Hell of Heav’n.
What matter where, if I be still the same,
And what I should be, all but less then he
Whom Thunder hath made greater? Here at least
We shall be free; th’ Almighty hath not built
Here for his envy, will not drive us hence:
Here we may reign secure, and in my choyce
To reign is worth ambition though in Hell:
Better to reign in Hell, then serve in Heav’n.’

Precept: For poets and strategists, power comes from distillation in content and in delivery, in diagnosis and manifesto