The home of Uncommon Sense: Providing Clarity, Promoting Intelligence

On Strategy: Napoleon, Ali, and Joe Biden

Strategy is crucial, not only to the viability of a business or an army, but even to the survival of the same.

Strategy is a term rich with deep historical meaning. While the word came from earlier words that reach back centuries, our word strategy has only found coinage since the early 1800s. The word is distinct to another word it is often confused with, the word tactics. Tactics, like strategy, comes to us from the world of the military, and referred to precision in organization with specific reference to the movement and maneuvering of military troops. Tactics, the “science of military movements” dates as far back the 4th century BC. Strategy, by contrast, denotes the “art of the general,” and is distinct from tactics in that the two words deal with different levels of command and different degrees of interaction with an opposing military force. According to military historian Lawrence Freedman, “strategy was the art of the commander-in-chief ‘projecting and directing the larger military movements and operations of a campaign,’ while tactics was ‘the art of handling forces in battle or in the immediate presence of the enemy.” Thus, one could think of strategy as big-picture, or long-range while tactics involve things of immediacy and in-the-moment. Strategy best takes place well in advance of an operation; tactics are often drawn upon on the fly, in the heat of the battle.

The great French Emperor Napoleon was, for most of his career, a brilliant strategist. Although Napoleon did not write down detailed treatises on how he approached strategy, we know he drew upon the work of a predecessor, Frederick the Great. Napoleon understood the value of exploiting the weaknesses of his enemy, and he wryly claimed there was wisdom in never interrupting an enemy who is making a mistake. Yet there were times later in life, even before Waterloo in 1815, that Napoleon could fail to think carefully about strategy. And in late 1812, he decided to invade Moscow, unaware that his Russian counterpart, the very wily General Mikhail Kutuzov, chose to abandon Moscow, keep his own army close to his supply lines, allow two-thirds of Moscow to burn to the ground, and then wait out an isolated French Army that was ill-prepared for the coming winter, forcing the French to abandon Moscow as temperatures began to drop in mid-October. Napoleon was outfoxed. He had no strategy, had not considered any “What-If” scenarios, and had to return to France in defeat after enduring an arduous journey back to the homeland.

Likewise, when heavyweight boxing champion George Foreman was making his third title defense after soundly thrashing the very tough Joe Frazier, he was set to fight Muhammad Ali. Big George assumed he would knock out Ali within one or two rounds, as he did with Frazier and the very strong and talented Ken Norton. But Foreman had not accounted for certain contingencies. For example, the heat in the African Congo where they were holding the fight weakened Foreman’s otherwise brute strength. Also, it never occurred to him that Ali did not appear to be afraid of him in the least. In fact, on his way to the ring from the dressing room, Ali stopped half-way there and admonished his team, rebuking them for looking somber. Ali reminded them that they were not the one’s about to fight Foreman. He ordered them to at least look confident. Once the fight started, Ali made sure he landed the first blow, walking right over to Foreman and smacking him in the face. Foreman threw wild punches, most of them missing, and he looked sloppy. Ali adopted the tactic of leaning back on the ropes, keeping his head away from Foreman’s thermal-nuclear blows, while allowing Foreman to punch himself to exhaustion. Ali also used the tactic of mockery, saying to Foreman, “Come on, George! Is that all you got?! My grandmother hits harder than you!” Finally, Foreman failed to account for the fact that he himself rarely had to fight for more than 2 or 3 rounds. There he was, in Round 8, tired, frustrated, and ineffective. Ali pounced, tagging Foreman with pinpoint accuracy, and dropping him in that round. The referee stopped the fight. Big George lost. No strategy. No ability to adapt.

We just saw the spectacle of a Presidential Debate between former President Donald Trump and current President Joe Biden. Biden spent roughly a week holed up at Camp David preparing for the debate while Donald Trump got out on the campaign trail. Biden’s handlers evidently assumed that since people who support Biden thoroughly loathe Donald Trump, that popularity might win the day. After all, the debate stage was held on CNN’s turf, and both debate moderators, Dana Bash and Jake Tapper, have an unbridled hatred for Donald Trump; surely they would be helpful to Biden and perhaps even rescue him if necessary. But that never happened; Bash and Tapper were, surprisingly, professional, balanced, and objective. Biden lacked the spark and pluck he demonstrated at the State of the Union Address in March. He appeared feeble, confused, inarticulate, and at times desperately angry. Donald Trump, by contrast, appeared measured and in command of himself and the basic facts, and while there were times he overstated or understated some things, the basic trajectory of his points and counterpoints were on track. Bottom line, neither Biden nor his handlers seemed to have any semblance of a strategy of any kind. As a result, Democrats are now in full-blown panic mode, and only the most partisan of them imagine everything is fine.

Failure to learn the lessons involving strategy and tactics from the likes of Napoleon, George Foreman, or Joe Biden is a recipe for disaster. Don’t make the same mistake they made.

Ara Norwood is a multi-faceted and results-oriented professional. Spanning a multiplicity of disciplines including leadership, management, innovation, strategy, service, sales, business ethics, and entrepreneurship. Ara is also a historian, having special expertise on the era of the founding of our republic.
Skip to content