Napoleon's Glance....The role of strategic intuition in social entrepreneurship

I've been terribly busy this semester with school, standardized tests (the bête noire of many my age) and of course finding artisans, materials and designs for Ralli and working with them to create the right products. It's been the most hectic and the most rewarding 4-5 months of my life. On the downside I haven't had the time to write on this blog, but I've vowed to change all of that, especially as the new year approaches and many of us make our usual ceremonial resolutions. I thought I'd start early this year. 

In a recent journey to the southern Punjabi city of Multan (a paradise for many artisans) I read Napoleon's Glance: The Secret of Strategy. It's written by Columbia Business School strategy professor William Duggan, who talks about Napoleon's strategic intuition or coup d'oiel ("stroke of a glance"), a concept introduced by Carl von Clausewitz, that don of all things military strategy. Von Clausewitz was a Prussian officer who faced Napoleon's armies, was routed by them and became obsessed with finding out the secret sauce of Bonaparte's battlefield successes. He honed it down to an intuition Napoleon, a Corscian outsider developed by devoting himself to rigorous late night studies of great military generals of yesteryear: From Gauis Julius Caesar to Gustavus Adolfus Magnus. In time Napoleon developed a unique insight that he would apply in the thick of the battle field as opposed to pre-ordained and meticulously pre-planned battles. This is where Antoine Jomini enters the book. Jomini had served on Napoleon's staff and claimed he could teach Napoleon's art of war, but ended up creating chess-piece battle imitators. Duggan narrates in this book's first chapter how many post-Napoleonic battles subscribed to Jomini's worldview with horrendous consequences in the First World War, where millions were slaughtered in stalemated trench battles planned by "Chateau generals".

There's always been this interesting link of war and business. From a very direct link of the business of war, Waterloo teeth in Napoleonic times, where scavengers would raid battlefields at night to rip the teeth off of dead bodies. Teeth were an expensive commodity hence big business. In modern times we have what U.S President General Dwight D. Eisenhower ominously warned was a "military-industrial-complex". And then there's this emphasis on learning strategy from war and applying it to business. This book certainly makes such a claim. In fact it believes that coup d'oiel can be applied to any sphere at all.

I was thoroughly riveted by the chapter on Nobel Laureate Professor Muhammad Yunus, and his coup d'oiel against the standard practices of developmental agencies working in Bangladesh. Professor Yunus masterfully used his strategic intelligence to come up with ideas that actually helped the poorest of the poor in rural Bangladesh. The success of his micro-loans in ending the pervasive influence of loan sharks, improving incomes and empowering women shocked the established agencies as well as the government. Having read Professor Yunus's book Social Business I am convinced that his dissatisfaction with the status quo in all spheres that have an impact on development is something every social entrepreneur must harbor and harness. Only then can paradigmatic change begin to take place.  

After reading this book, I was inspired to read more, analyze more and learn lessons from other people across different fields and generations. But I was also left ruminating about a quip by Napoleon that I had read a long time back: "I have plenty of clever generals but just give me a lucky one." At the end of the day, winning generals like entrepreneurs need lots of plain old luck (the right idea mixed with the right timing mixed with the right team et al). But still, making the very best of that bout of good fortune requires a fair amount of coup d'oeil