Military Origins of Strategy

We are often asked about the origins of strategy.  Below is an excerpt from the second edition of Strategy in the 21st Century which clearly documents the role of the military.

The military origins of strategy predate recorded history. The rivalries between competing tribes; clans; villages; city-states; and, ultimately, nations have been the natural resource for strategic thinking.  The origin of the word strategy comes from strategos (a compound of two Greek words: Stratos which means “army” and Agos which means “leader”) and was used for military commander in histories of fifth-century B.C. Greek city-states (Diggle, J. The Cambridge Greek Lexicon, Cambridge University Press, 2021.) The commander’s plans for battle, and more generally for waging war, were the first records of strategic thinking. In the ancient Western world, the city-state was the fundamental political unit of greatest significance. Rome, the most successful city-state of ancient times, developed the art of organized warfare to its highest level until the emergence of Italian city-states beginning in the 12th and 13th century.

In the early 16th century, the Roman model was reintroduced by Machiavelli in his Art of War (Farneworth 2001) as the first model for modern warfare. Enormously popular in the Italian city-states of his day, Machiavelli became the guru on city-state warfare. Many of his precepts and principles, especially on the nature of war, are still incorporated in Western military thinking.

Military strategy continued to evolve incrementally during the next three centuries, but it took the military genius of Napoleon and Clausewitz (Farneworth 2001) to define new paradigms for modern military strategy that were nothing short of a revolution. The result was the emergence of innovations such as conscription; larger independent units that combined infantry, cavalry, and artillery; larger military staffs, both centralized and in military subunits; and, finally, the process of living off the land.

These innovations in both military strategy and structure combined to give commanders many strategic options. These options have continued to have great influence in warfare while becoming the subject of intense interest and study in business and commerce as well. However, the rewards of studying military history, not military history itself, are of key interest.

The primary benefit of studying military strategy is understanding the competitive nature of strategic thinking and action. Adversaries must know the terrain; gather intelligence regarding their opponent, including estimating their relative strengths and weaknesses and measuring them against their own forces; form a plan of attack; and then lead their forces to engage the enemy. Sound familiar? This is strikingly similar to the situation that confronts competing organizations. In fact, it is so similar that it is amazing that it took until the 1980s to realize rich veins of knowledge and experience were there to be mined by studying military history. (McNeilly 1996; Michealson 2001; Tracy 2002).

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Randall Rollinson/President, LBL Strategies

President, LBL Strategies