Strategic thinking: Coolidge v Cheshire Cat

DisneyCheshireCat225px-Calvin_Coolidge_photo_portrait_head_and_shouldersOne thread on The Hannibal Blog, as regular readers know, is strategy. That’s because strategy (as distinct from tactics, which is also important) is so important in achieving success. Genius tactics in service of the wrong strategy leads to disaster, as it did for the main character in my forthcoming book, Hannibal of Carthage.

Mark Hurst over at Good Experience has an amusing and insightful post on strategy as opposed to tactics. (Mark, by the way, also runs Gel, an ideas conference and a mini-TED, as it were.)

On one hand, Mark quotes Calvin Coolidge, our 30th (as well as 30th-most-impressive) president:

Nothing in this world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful people with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent.

If I may reflect on my guy, Hannibal: He had remarkable persistence: Leading an army of elephants over the Alps, defeating the Romans, staying undefeated in Italy for 16 years!!

The trouble with the Coolidge take on success is, as Mark points out, that the effectiveness of persistence

depends on having the right direction. Without that one little element, the entire effort is for naught.

So Mark wheels out the Cheshire Cat, a sort of feline Clausewitz. Alice asks which way she should go, and the Cheshire Cat answers:

“That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,” said the Cat.

“I don’t much care where,” said Alice.

“Then it doesn’t matter which way you go,” said the Cat.

To Mark that means that

you have to stop and take time to find the direction. You can’t run while you’re reading the map.

To me it means that Hannibal was a bit like Alice. Yes, he knew that he wanted to defeat Rome (which was like saying “I want to achieve success”–ie, vague). But he did not know where he wanted to go (ie, how to go about defeating Rome).

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14 thoughts on “Strategic thinking: Coolidge v Cheshire Cat

  1. As a fellow lover of the Hannibal, I must say I am not sure I agree here. As you of all people know, Hannibal had a plan which was to tear the fabric of the Roman republic apart. He planned and to a large degree managed to detach Rome from its Italian allies, which it had forced into submission.

    Many claim, his goal was not to destroy Rome but to “turn the clock back” and reduce it to the provincial power it had been a hundred year prior to his time.

    Hannibal was ultimately done in by the Fabian tactic of avoiding direct confrontation and attacking instead Hannibal’s new found allies forcing him to go on the defense.

    If anything, Hannibal was defeated by a leader who acknowledged he could not match tactics with Hannibal but could defeat him strategically.

  2. You’re absolutely right about Fabius. (And you probably know that Scipio and Fabius are my other two main characters in the book.)

    Everything you say is correct except your implication that Hannibal can therefore be said to have had a “good” strategy.

    Yes, his strategy was to separate Rome from “the Italians”, thus leaving it isolated as the small provincial power it once was.

    And now: That strategy SUCCEEDED. Hannibal did persuade, through his victories, the Gauls in the North, the Capuans and the other cities of Campania to come to his side. Then, through ruses, he even got the Greek cities of the very south (Tarentum, until Fabius took it back) to be on his side.

    What this tells you is that his strategy was defective. If he met his immediate objective (isolating Rome from Italy) but this objective did not lead to his ultimate goal (defeat of Rome) then that means that he confused tactics with strategy.

    To speak in the vocabulary of Clausewitz: Hannibal mistook Rome’s “center of gravity” and this led him to wrong strategy. Sort of like Napoleon who thought that you could invade Russia and take Moscow and Russia would have to surrender (the opposite mistake, if you think about it, since Hannibal did not try to take Rome itself.)

    Long-winded. Sorry. Love the debate. Keep pushing me….

    • Andreas, if you read my last sentence, you will see I too agree that in essence, Fabious won the strategic battle against Hannibal. What I am saying though is:

      A. Hannibal had a clear strategy and did not go in to Italy “Alice in Wonderland style”
      B. Hannibal’s strategy was the best possible given his inability to attack Rome by sea
      C. Hannibal’s strategy worked to a large extent. Given any support from Carthage, which he desperately needed e.g. siege weapons, reinforcements etc, he could have sacked Rome after Cannae.
      D. Given any other Roman leader other the “Fabius the coward” he most likely would have likely dealt one more back breaking blow to the Romans.

      Alas, things didn’t work out that way and the tide turned against Hannibal. I would say one more thing for his STRATEGIC genius. Once defeated in Zamma (a battle he did not want to fight and new he is likely to lose), Hannibal was the first to force the need for total surrender saving Carthage from the fate suffered after the 3rd Punic War. He was also instrumental in re-building their economy to even greater heights after the war, understanding that Carthage can do better as an economic empire.

      To summarize this all to long reply:

      Hannibal report card:
      Strategy: A
      Tactics: A+

      What can I say, I am a fan (:

    • It’s great to know somebody who knows the details.

      You are certainly right about Hannibal NOT being an Alice.

      Do you think, as Livy seems to have thought, that Maharbal was right when, after Cannae, he told H to march on Rome right away and, when rebuffed, said to H: “You know, Hannibal, how to win battles, but you do not know how to use your victories”?

      Incidentally, if you love Hannibal’s stratgegy, do you love Scipio’s even more? If you think about his response, he did the exact opposite sweep to Hannibal’s, copying all his successes but avoiding his mistakes: Ie, he took Iberia’s capital when he conquered Spain, then marched on Carthage after Zama.

    • Well, there seem to be at least 3 opinions I have heard about Hannibal’s reluctance to attack Rome after Cannae.

      A. Hannibal dropped the ball – Somehow, Hannibal did not plan for the Cannae contingency or was hesitant to push forwards on the heels of his success. Somewhat like the Syrian army stopping at the Sea of Galilee in the Yom Kippur war since they never believed they would get so far and did not know what to do. Personally, I don’t buy it. Hannibal had his whole life to plan plus, he was one of the best improvisers ever (as in the Rhone river)

      B. Hannibal didn’t want to conquer Rome – this theory states Hannibal just to humble Rome into a reasonable peace. Err…. So that whole swearing to his dad was just for laughs? Next theory please.

      C. My favorite: Hannibal knew he could simply could not take Rome. His army had Zero siege weapons. His army was built for speed not taking fortified cities (Saguntum doesn’t really count) . He had never taken a major city, and to the best of my knowledge, the Carthaginians as a people had no such tradition. He had not received any reinforcements from Carthage and knew he could not maintain or feed his army for the months and years it would take if parked outside Rome.

      As for Zamma, I tend to buy into the “Hannibal was never defeated with his Numidian Cavalry” theory. They were the key element in all 3 major Italian victories.

  3. Strategic goals aren’t necessary for success. At least not artistic success. All artistic advances post 1900 have been achieved by artists moving away from stuff not toward stuff–dissatisfaction with “things as they are” has energized artistic progress. The direction doesn’t matter. The important thing is to get away from the boring status quo, unbeige things, do something different. You have to spend some effort and come up with an interesting novelty, but there is no given destination and the possibilities are (not quite) endless. It goes for art and it goes for sexual selection, the engine of human progress. Don’t take my word for it, this guy makes a fantastic case for it:

    • What an intriguing book description.

      And I do sympathize with your point, that–in the arts, especially–sheer rebelliousness is the perfect prerequisite. But then it helps to have, if not a “Strategy”, a vision. Ie: picasso: He knew exactly what he set out to do before he began a painting. He already had it in his mind, fully formed.

  4. Alas, this sheer rebelliousness in the literary world has hatched, as an LA Times book reviewer named it, Gimmick Books. These books are cousins to reality TV and the dumbed-down viewing/reading public, laps them up, like needy puppies.

    For example, Tina loses her job as a journalist. She pitches an idea for her book to her former editor: I will live in three different places in the world (after my job loss) and report how different they are. No duh…

    Then, she puts that cheap cart before her horse, gets her book deal, and goes off and writes.

    And we buy this stuff.

    Regular readers to this blog will understand my views about authenticity.

  5. I read the LA Times article and gimmick books definitely sounds like cheesy stuff. But I’m not surprised there are bad new book genres (also, my heart goes out to the laid-off journalist — we all make do as best as we can). But publishers want to sell books, be they gimmick books or more authentic stuff, they don’t mind as long as they shift the stuff off the shelves. But the point I was rather trying to make was a point on strategy: that artists don’t need (with the exception of Picasso, ahem) to strategically be mountain climbers working teleologically toward a definite target, but that in the last hundred years or so they have rather worked as escape artists, breaking away from the conventional in any old direction. “Away from” and not “toward”. I’m sure there are interesting examples of that principle in Hannibal’s life, but I’m afraid I don’t know enough about him to bring them up.

  6. Similar post, similar comment:

    Did you read The Art of What Work?
    The thesis is that you have to have an initial insight, a coup d’oeil that launch you in a direction: the big picture. Then you deduce your strategy along the way, depending what works and what doesn’t.
    You can’t read a map while running. You can’t read a map without have run a little and now where you want to go, and which way you’re able to take.

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