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One of the things I hope to do here at The Idea Business is to draw out lessons for the marketplace from the unlikeliest of places – in this case from military history, though we can and will find good advice from as diverse places as sports and religion.  A successful leader and/or manager must be able to learn from anyone at anytime…but that’s another post.

The Battle of Waterloo changed everything.  For a quick summary of the battle, you can check out wikipedia’s version here.  An interesting version that I want to comment on is given by Victor Hugo in his masterpiece Les Miserables Part 2, Section one, entitled “Waterloo.”  While some have posited Napoleon’s huge ego as the cause of his downfall, it is safest to just deal with the details of the battle.  There are tales of all sorts of outlandish things Napoleon was supposed to have said about the ease with which he would defeat the English and Prussians, but I find that ego is inflated over time…especially that of losers. 

What is widely known is that Napoleon waited until noon to launch his attack on the English in order to let the ground dry, not realizing (or caring?) that time was not on his side.  The reasoning goes that Bonaparte wanted to let the ground dry was so that he could make greater use of his cannons and cavalry.  Napoleon’s background was in artillery.  He was a master at capitilizing on his long range guns.  And he was known to have a splendid cavalry.

So, what’s the problem? Just this: the Prussians did arrive in time to help the English.  If you’ve seen The Return of the King, you may recall a scene where the riders of Rohan have ridden non-stop for days in order to help Gondor.  It was an awesome scene in print and film, and this is what happened at Waterloo, though no elves were present.  You see, most people believe Napoleon could have won the battle of Waterloo if he would have just started the battle that morning instead of waiting.  He could have beaten the English, re-formed his ranks, and then beaten the Prussians.  But, he waited.  He waited in order to do what was familiar to him, he waited in order to make sure he could do it his way, namely, with his cannons. 

What can we learn?  In an ever changing marketplace, the Prussians are always bearing down on you.  Your competition is always close to beating you to the punch.  You have to be flexible, willing to approach things in a different way than the one you’re use to.  Sometimes you have to leave the cannons at homein order to win the contract or be the first to get the product to market.  Are you capable of thinking in new ways?  Do you always go for the obvious or for the usual way of doing things?  This won’t work.  You have to learn to think differently…you have to be in the idea business.

I hope to do one more lesson from Waterloo in the next post!  Actually, military strategy could teach us a ton about leading on the fly.  Harvard Business Review this month is tapping into this exact concept.  Some of the articles are free, but it wouldn’t be a bad idea to pay for a years subscription.  A good, first step to thinking in new ways is to learn how others are thinking about things.