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On Grand Strategy

Video Length 2:57

Who Should Read It

All individuals in leadership positions of any kind.

Why Should We Read It

We all want something- what do we do if we don't have unlimited capacity to get everything we want?

What Will We Learn

In strategy, it doesn't matter how we reach our goals, as long as we reach them.

Book Reflections

"Now here was a book that would teach me not just the meaning of 'strategy', but presumably also the 'grandest' strategic mindset to have..."

Strategy is a word only vaguely defined in my mind. In my youth, my friends and I dabbled in “strategy” board games. On my high school tennis team, my doubles partner and I "strategized" how to beat our opponents. In adulthood, I have friends whose entire job description is “strategy". If I had to put a definition to it, "strategy" is simply "a plan to win". I was rather intrigued, then, when I came across a book entitled On Grand Strategy, by John Lewis Gaddis. Now here was a book that would teach me not just the meaning of "strategy", but presumably also the "grandest" strategic mindset to have. In actuality, "grand" refers to the manner in which governments leverage political capital and military assets to pursue their interests. This type of strategy is "grand" because the stakes cannot be higher- the outcome of the strategy determines the government's very own existence. And for Mr. Gaddis, strategy at this most consequential stage can be boiled down to two simple animals: a hedgehog and a fox.

"The hedgehog’s every word and deed is an epitomized reflection of this commitment to their vision.."

In strategy, a hedgehog is someone who remains perpetually principled. They profess faith in some ideal or vision, and they truly believe it. The hedgehog’s every word and deed is an epitomized reflection of this commitment to their vision. And the most hedgehog-like of the hedgehogs? Xerxes the Great of Persia. Xerxes’ vision was as grand as it was grandiose: his own godhood. In his mind, only his own ambition could hold him back. Greece was waiting to be conquered. Why fret over unfavorable weather, unforgiving terrain, and unresolved supply lines (as his advisors did) when destiny was at hand? Xerxes was so drunk on his own vision of invincibility that he found little need to devise a military strategy beyond mobilizing his massive army. Blithely ill-prepared for war, Xerxes repeatedly blundered into battles that were actually enemy traps (most famously at Thermopylae and Salamis). As history’s alpha hedgehog, Xerxes committed the most hedgehog-like mistake: remaining so principled to a fault that he could not adjust his aspirations to meet reality.

"[Foxes] are sensitive to their surroundings, and set agendas based on circumstances affecting them..."

In contrast, foxes do not constrain themselves to any preconceived belief. Instead, they are sensitive to their surroundings, and set agendas based on circumstances affecting them. The most successful fox in American history? Abraham Lincoln. He campaigned vigorously against the morality of slavery, which earned him the Presidency- and the enmity of the South. Once in office, President Lincoln tried to reassure the South that he may actually not have the authority to abolish slavery. Eleven states nonetheless seceded from the Union. Even then, Lincoln framed the Civil War as a necessary evil to preserve the Union; he did NOT intend to use the war to end slavery. After all, four slave states still remained in the Union, and it is easier to fight eleven rebel states than fifteen. Only after the Battle of Antietam, a Union victory, did Lincoln proclaim freedom for all slaves (in rebel states only). The simultaneous military victory and moral high ground closed all possibility of European aid to the South. America's most famous fox went on to win the Civil War, thus preserving the Union and abolishing slavery- his original goal all along.

"'If we can only be one or the other...the fox will usually prevail over the hedgehog."

I was right! “Strategy” truly is nothing more than “a plan to win”. It is, of course, the best if we can be both the hedgehog and the fox. If we can only be one or the other, Mr. Gaddis makes clear that the fox will usually prevail over the hedgehog. Had Xerxes acknowledged his military weaknesses with respect to Greece’s unique geography, he could have single handedly rewritten European history. Had Abraham Lincoln insisted on abolishing slavery as his primary goal, slavery in the United States might still exist today. It is not enough for hedgehogs to win; they must also win in the manner of their choosing. Foxes don't mind how they get the victory, as long as victory is achieved. This mental flexibility is the key to success for as long we are with limited capabilities in world of limitless obstacles.

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