Strategy Is Who You Are

A lesson from the business strategists: an organization’s strategy is a reflection of its culture, not grand plans made by its leaders. An example from Ancient China shows how this truth applies to crafting strategies of war and peace.

I firmly believe that theorists of war and diplomacy have much to gain from studying the business world. Those fascinated with the rise and fall of great powers should turn their gaze to the rise and fall of companies and corporations. Why? There is a lot more data to work with. One of the great frustrations I have with social scientists studying competition and conflict–especially practitioners of International Relations–is their general tendency to create the sweeping “theories” that rest on relatively few case studies.[1] Only a handful of great powers have risen or fallen over the last 200 years; an immensely larger number of companies have done the same. While the similarities cannot be pushed too far (a nation-state is far more complex than the average corporation), those interested in competition and conflict between human organizations would be foolish to dismiss the massive amount of literature and history provided by the study of business.

The following discussion, taken from the business strategy blog Silberzahn and Jones, is a terrific example of the insight business literature can offer those who seek to make sense of international affairs:

Individual and corporate character is often at the root of how strategy emerges in an organization. Most business books cultivate a Cartesian vision of strategy that is created by the top management team or a CEO hero or a mathematical void, and communicated to the lower-echelon humans for mere implementation. In fact, strategy making rarely works like that. In a landmark study, Stanford professor Robert Burgelman showed how, in fact, strategy is to a large extent the outcome of countless micro-decisions by operating and middle managers. The crucial insight was that decisions are tied to the resource allocation process. Everyday, in their work, managers make decisions on how to allocate their scarce resources (time, energy, attention, money). They choose certain tasks against others. They call certain customers, and not others. They advance some projects, not others. They prioritize. The managers base those prioritizing decisions on the organizations’ explicit (identity) and implicit (cultural) values. For instance, if the organization values customer relationships, they will call long time customers, even if those calls do not yield much. In a more profit-oriented organization, managers will ignore these customers and call the most promising ones. Sometimes the values are not explicit: corporate strategy might decide to favor segment A, but if sales people find it more profitable for them to call segment B customers, they will do so. If all sales people do the same, the firm eventually finds itself present in segment B rather than the planned segment A. That is to say, the actual strategy emerges from the actions of the lower echelons and these actions are really the product of social mechanisms such as hiring, training, allocation and control processes, incentive systems, or even corporate customs. In short, the actual strategy is the result of what you do, and what you do is in large measure the result of who you are. Often senior management eventually recognizes these emergent strategies instead of creating them….In short, strategy is ultimately a reflection of an organization’s identity and culture, and should be the central dimension when considering strategic issues. (Emphasis Added). [2]

Professor Burgelman’s study provides two insights that can be applied directly to the work of the grand strategist.

  1. Strategy is primarily a process of resource allocation. The actual day-to-day decisions of men in the field are more important than visions articulated by charismatic leaders, strategies developed by working committees, or programs championed by policy wonks. (For example, the Australian government can publish a Defence White Paper declaring that the Royal Australian Navy will be a major regional player by the year 2030, but this will never reflect Australia’s actual strategy if the country’s defense budget continues its relative decline.) Strategy is what an organization does, not what its leaders say it ought to do.
  2. What members of an organization do is a reflection of who they are. How decision makers on the lower and middle tiers prioritize information and assignments depends on what they believe about the purpose of the organization and their work within it. Where legislation, memos, or rules do not reach (and in some circumstances where they do), values and culture will guide these daily decisions. Strategy is identity in action.

I outlined how this decentralized, identity-driven process of crafting and implementing strategy has played itself out across American history in a previous set of essays. [3] However, the process can be seen at the center of history made far from America’s golden shores. One of the most interesting examples can be found in China’s imperial past.

From the Han Dynasty to the Qing, every imperial regime to claim the Middle Kingdom had to face the strategic dilemma posed by the nomads of the Eurasian steppe. Their response to this challenge varied widely from one period to another. The first to face it were the early emperors of the Han Dynasty. Han Gaozu, founder of the dynasty, decided against open confrontation with Xiongnu nomads after they ambushed and nearly killed him in 200 BC. Sima Qian records the treaty arrangements that rescued the Han:

Gaozu dispatched Liu Jing to present a princess of the imperial family to the Chanyu [Xiongnu version of a ‘Khan’] to be his consort. The Han agreed to send a gift of specified quantities of silk floss and cloth, grain, and other food stuffs each year, and the two nations were to live in peace and brotherhood.” [4]

This was the beginning of what would be later called the Heqin, a treaty system in which the Han allowed the Xiongnu to trade with Han merchants and agreed to send a caravan of luxury goods to the Xiongnu every year and a royal “princess” whenever the a Chanyu came to power. The Xiongnu, for their part, promised to halt their raids on the frontier and treat the Han as brothers. The system lasted for 60 years. It ended during the reign of Han Wudi. It would be another 150 years before peace would come to the frontier.

The Xiongnu and Han peoples – Image source

Why did the Han change their policy on the steppe? In part, the new policy reflected a new balance of power within the Han world. The greatest threat faced by the earliest Han dynasts were not steppe nomads, but powerful regional kings and generals who had been enfeoffed by Han Gaozu upon his ascension to the throne. Both these men and their source of power were destroyed during the Rebellion of the Seven Kingdoms (154 BC), leaving the Han free to campaign outside of the dynasty’s borders.

The Han could never have fought the Xiongnu without this political centralization. But the mere fact that such centralization occurred did not mean war was inevitable. An important part of the change in Han foreign policy was the change in philosophy sanctioned by the Han court.

Contrary to popular stereotype, Confucian officials have not always dominated Chinese imperial courts. Their influence grew and waned at different times. The first Han dynasts were not Confucian at all. Their preferred philosophy was something scholars like to call Han Syncretism; contemporaries called it the Huang-Lao school of philosophy. While the particulars of the philosophy are complex, it can be thought of as applied Daoism. Even a cursory reading of early Syncretic texts betray the stark contrast between it and later imperial thought:

The foundation of governing lies in making the people content. 

The foundation of making the people content lies in giving them sufficient use of their time for farming. 

The foundation of giving them sufficient use lies in not stealing their time. 

The foundation of stealing their time lies in restricting the state’s endeavors. 

The foundation of limiting desires of the ruler lies in his return to his innate nature.” [5]

Returning to or staying with the “innate nature” of things was a central point of both Huang Lao and Daoist thought. They proclaimed that the greatest good was not anything they could hope to make from their own efforts, but “that which is pure and unmixed, unhewn and simple, innate and direct, and which has never begun to become adulterated.” Thus their goal was not to change the world, but to live along side it. These early dynasts believed that “adaptation [should be] the guiding principle of the ruler.” [6]

These beliefs had clear policy implications. In marked contrast to later periods, the early Han intervened little in the economy (one commentator goes so far as to call them “libertarian” [7]) and did nothing to impose their philosophy on the populace at large. As far as foreign affairs were concerned, the early Han thought it best to live and let live. The nomads were living according to their “innate nature” and the Han were doing the same. Better to adapt to them than try to change them.

Confucian intellectuals found all of this reprehensible. Their vision of society was radically at odds with that presented by the Daoist and early Han. Where the Daoists believed that the state that interfered the least governed best, Confucians asserted that the government had a duty to nurture the people, perfect their natures, and ensure that proper hierarchy and ritual were adhered to. This is why heaven allowed the Han Dynasty to exist in the first place! Participating in treaties that named barbarian warlords “brother” to the Emperor threw the entire system upon its head. Confucians in the court were some of the earliest proponents of a more aggressive frontier policy. This debate raged for decades.

When the debate is boiled down to its most basic level, the two factions had different visions of what the dynasty was for. The first vision was held (as far as we can tell) by the majority of officials, soldiers and emperors until the reign of Han Wudi. By the time of his reign court demographics had changed and a slim majority of officials were Confucians. As time went on they would come to dominate both the court and the landed aristocracy that the Han depended on to carry out the imperial will. This Confucian revolution went hand in hand with an increasingly aggressive foreign policy. [8] Their strategy was rooted in who they were.

The pattern is seen across world history. In How Rome Fell Adrian Goldsworthy suggests that the ultimate failure of the Roman Empire was that the only real strategic priorities of emperors and their underlings was their own survival; “emperors and government officials had forgotten what the empire was for.” In his excellent The Great Wall of China: From History to Myth Arthur Waldron chronicles how the Ming dynasty’s foreign policy and frontier strategy changed from one of engagement and trade to one of isolation and wall building as a group of literati hostile to “barbarian” influence fought to gain control of the court and discredit their political enemies. The Great Wall of China is testament to their success. Kwasi Kwarteng argues that strategy in the British Empire did not follow any predefined grand plan conceived in Whitehall, but was the result of dozens of decisions made by imperial officials on the spot. [9]

The common theme? In all of these cases actual policy was not the product of calculating strategists at the top of the hierarchy but a reflection of the identity and sense of self interest of those a few rungs down.



[1] The IR community itself seems to be growing more discontent with these ‘paradigms’ and grand theories. See Steven Sadleman. “Lamenting the Loss of Light, Grand Theories, and Old Boy Networks.” The Duck of Minerva. 5 January 2013. Also see the “End of International Relations Theory” panel to be hosted by European Journal of International Relations.

 [2] Phillipe Silberzahn. “Crafting Non-Predictive Strategy, Part II: Start With Who You Are.” Silberzahn & Jones. 21 September 2012. 

 For the study Silberzahn highlights see Robert A. Burgelman, “Intraorganizational Ecology of Strategy Making and Organizational Adaptation: Theory and Field Research.” Organization Science. Vol. 2, No. 3 (Aug., 1991), pp. 239-262 

 [3] T. Greer. “Dreaming Grand Strategy“. The Scholar’s Stage. 12 May 2010. 

 And T. Greer “Manifest Destiny: A Case Study in National Purpose?” The Scholar’s Stage. 24 August 2010. 

 [4] Trans. Burton Watson. Records of the Grand Historian: Han Dynasty II. rev. ed. (New York: Columbia University Press). 1991. p. 139 

 [5] Trans. D.C Lau. Selections from Huananzi in Sources of the Chinese Tradition, Vol I: From Earliest Times to 1600. 2nd ed. compiled by WM Theodore de Bary and Irene Bloom. (New York: Columbia University Press). 1999. p. 271 

 [6] Ibid, p. 270; p. 282. 

 [7] Murray N. Rothband. “Libertarianism in Ancient China.” Ludwig Von Mises Institute: Mises Daily. 23 December 2009. 

 [8] My reading of these events is heavily influenced by Chun-Shu Chang. The Rise of the Chinese Empire, Volume 1: Nation, State, Imperialism in Early China, 1600 BC- 1 AD. (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press). 2007. pp. 135-161. And Arthur Waldron, The Great Wall of China: From History to Myth. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press). 1990. pp. 40-43. 

 [9] Adrian Goldsworthy. How Rome Fell: Death of a Super Power. (New Haven: Yale University Press). p. 418; Arthur Waldron, above; “With a Stony Stare: The Men Who Ruled The British Empire.” The Economist. 3 September 2011.

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One criticism…..there have been more than a "few case studies". Most historians don't compare it to every case study under the sun, but that's the role of the peer review process. A guy will say, "I have a theory", and then experts on every little piece of the greater puzzle can pick away at it and compare it to their personal expertise. When comparing history and economics the historians have a lot of data that can be very messy while economists might have very clean and orderly data (GDP, inflation, etc), but not that much. They both have advantages and disadvantages.

When it comes to business….I'm not sure how far your argument can go. I would throw out a criticism. The history of business is from a much shorter time span than the history of empires. Similar to economics, most business books I've read at most only go back to the 19th century. Moreover, corporations might be very common now, but drawing 99 percent of your data from one small time period….eh….that's asking for trouble. Still fun stuff to compare and contrast.

Note: lots of pages. Lots of data.

On a side note, have you heard of Constructivist IR? One of my professors (and the head of the Political Science Department) taught a class where we spent a good amount of time on it. Basically, realism, liberalism, etc are all products of how we feel people SHOULD act instead of how they really do. I imagine a constructivist IR theorist to be like a psychologist asking the realist or liberal about some historical event and “how does that make you feel?”

Two thoughts:

1) There have been comparatively few "case studies" that matter. The world has seen hundreds of empires in its history, but most of those empires were the product of the static age. The dynamics of civilizational rise and decay were simply not the same after "growth revolution" as they are before it.

I devoted some space (12 pages MS word doc) to this issue in an essay I published several years ago on this space:

Notes on the Dynamics of Human Civilization: The Growth Revolution, pt. 1
T. Greer. The Scholar's Stage. 4 August 2012.

There really have been only a handful of great powers since the Growth Revolution (c. 1830) – it is a small data set to make grand claims on. *

I am much less skeptical of those who develop "theories" for the rise and fall of empires before this time, for just the reason you mention. See, for example, Peter Turchin's work on historical dynamics:

"A Theory for the Formation of Large Empires". Journal of Global History (2009) 4, pp. 191–217 a London School of Economics and Political Science 2009

2) My distaste for strict "paradigms" (realism, liberalism, constructivism, etc.) is similar to my distaste for grand power theories. A little too much hedgehog, and not enough fox for my taste. With that said, I mostly follow the constructivist line of thinking, but don't find it that much more useful than what the others offer. Yes, anarchy may be "what states make of it", but what do they make of it? I have not seen many convincing answers to this last question.

*It is an even smaller data set for those IR scholars (like the 'neorealists') who focus on the "systems level" of analysis – there have only been what, three or four changes in 'polarity' during the last two hundred years?

Ok, so perhaps this is more of a comment aimed at your "growth revolution" thesis. This is,I might add, an attempt to draw lines in the sand in history as well, and is something that many throw nervous fits over. Personally, I like it, but I feel that all all-encompassing have limitations. Things can still be learned, and changes can be shown, differences drawn, and points made without a completely flawless argument. I feel that you are attacking a group you are a part of, aka the history spanning theory club.

So I do not have much time. I must away pretty soon here. I won't throw up a 12 page essay, but I'll show some examples of changing economic power. You draw the line at the 19th Century, so let's look at some examples before that. There's the usurpation of Habsburg power during the 16th Century, The diminishing power of Greece as the rest of Europe began to outpace it in growth, and Rome's economic growth being dwarfed by the growth of the eastern chunk of the empire. Each of these were examples of states whose growth was outpaced by their neighbors, leading to their eventual downfall as….well…. the center of the world.

I agree that there are differences with the modern and the ancient world, but I still feel there are lessons to be gained from ancient Rome and Greece. I honestly haven't studied the others too much, but I should. Sorry for not having more time to write more. Back to Germany!

@Daniel Froehling – I never did suggest that empires did not rise and fall and the centers of economic productivity did not change before 1800. What I did submit is that the dynamics of this change (in this case, how wealth was created and maintained)is fundamentally different for societies that rose and fell before the growth revolution and societies that did so (or are doing so) afterwords.

Incidentally, the creation of wealth during these two periods is the main topic of my most recent post:

A Flawed Comparison: Inequality, Ancient and Modern
T. Greer. The Scholar's Stage. 2 March 2013.

There is quite a bit more I could say about this, but perhaps the comment thread of that post would be a more fitting place to do so.

@LFC- Post a review if you get around to it! I do not think I will manage to do so myself any time soon.