What can military planning teach us about creating transformative change?


(image courtesy of clipart panda.com)

Can an understanding of military strategy and tactics yield important lessons for achieving social change?

Yes, I know, some readers may wonder why a civilian with liberal politics (uh, that’s me) is looking to the military in this way. But I’m also a devoted amateur student of history, and I have a lot of respect for many who serve in the military. I believe that we have much to learn from the best military leaders. Here goes:

Plant the seeds for future success now, even if that success seems far away

During the early years of the Second World War, Hitler was running rampant over Europe, and the Japanese were doing the same in the Pacific. The Allies were losing the war on just about all fronts. Nevertheless, their leaders assessed what needed to be done, and they developed rough timelines for achieving their goals. Among other things, Churchill and Roosevelt made the critical decision to defeat Germany first, then to tackle the Japanese.

Lesson: At times, changing things for the better seems like an insurmountable obstacle. If your assessment of a situation indicates that major change will require many steps and stages, plan out the order in which things should be done and go from there.

Avoid tunnel vision: Plan using parallel tracks, and chunk it out

Sound military strategy usually involves a multifaceted approach toward achieving goals. For example, those planning the D-Day landings in France needed to think about personnel, equipment, geography, weather, communications, and a host of other logistics and contingencies. Take the “simple” question of building landing craft to reach the beaches: Someone had to develop proper designs, the factories had to start mass producing them, and the boats had to be shipped to England. All of those plans had to be in the making well before the June 6, 1944 landings.

Lesson: Most significant social change goals also require parallel tracks of planning. Making the world a better place typically involves multiple stakeholders, actions, and timelines. Understanding how those dots connect is vital toward achieving success. However, the resulting to-do list may seem overwhelming. That’s why it’s important to chunk out these tasks and get them done one-by-one.

Be passionate about your goals, but plan and evaluate dispassionately

The stakes in warfare could hardly be greater. But when it comes to military planning, the best leaders don’t let their emotions carry them into making bad choices. They stay focused, stoic, yet appropriately flexible, with a constant eye on their endgame.

Lesson: Change agents are similarly urged to disentangle their passion for a cause from the cool planning and evaluation needed to create transformation. This is not easy. The more invested we are in addressing injustice or societal challenge, the harder it can be to advocate effectively. Our hearts should fuel our passions, while our heads should guide our actions.

Learn from mistakes, even (especially) gruesome ones

If you study the biographies of great military leaders, then you will see that many of them made fairly big mistakes and experienced setbacks on the way to their signature successes. The stakes were huge. Bad decisions cost lives. Nevertheless, they learned from their mistakes and remained determined to succeed.

Lesson: There’s no substitute for experience and the capacity for continued growth. This includes learning lessons from our miscues. No one likes revisiting their errors and mistakes, but this evaluative process is necessary if we want to maximize our positive impact.

Sometimes you compromise, and sometimes you fight

Not every situation in life can be a “win-win,” and armed conflict is a prime example. At times, negotiation, compromise, and settlement are the right thing to do. On other occasions, one must press on to overcome the enemy. Hitler is an easy case of an enemy who had to be stopped completely, but there are countless other situations more complicated than that. The Cuban Missile Crisis, for example, offers valuable lessons about how military force, diplomacy, and compromise combined to narrowly avert a nuclear catastrophe.

Lesson: This dilemma applies to nearly every attempt to engage in meaningful change. When do you broker an agreement, when do you go for it all, and when do you back off? A capacity for understanding the bigger picture helps us to make smart choices in this regard.

Be gracious and humane in victory

Wise wartime victors know that treating a vanquished foe with dignity is the right thing to do, both morally and out of self-interest. In the aftermath of the First World War, the victorious Allies set out to punish Germany, imposing humiliating conditions of surrender. They helped to enable the destruction of the German economy and planted the seeds for Hitler’s rise to power. After the Second World War, however, the Allies realized their mistake and imposed conditions upon Germany and Japan that promoted renewed relations with those nations and the rebuilding of their economic and social structures.

Lesson: In social change efforts, too, good victors don’t attempt to humiliate their opponents. Such mistreatment likely fuels cycles of anger, resentment, and aggression.

Envision something better

As the tides of the Second World War turned, and defeat of the Axis forces seemed likely, the Allied countries began planning the United Nations. Today, the U.N. is far from being a perfect world organization, but it plays an important role in brokering diplomatic communication and humanitarian efforts.

Lesson: As your social change goals near a milestone victory, think hard about how that success can lead to more lasting, positive transformations. What comes next?


This post was revised in March 2019.

5 responses

  1. LOVE this. One of my goals is to help in this Program. I have an Air Force Base nearby. The DoD is doing an Amazing work in helping our Wounded Warriors AND preventing more suicides and all manner of mental problems in the Military Culture. At best the culture is heinous. Unfortunately….the Military is prime grounds for all kinds of mental disorders to flourish. Only now….so is the general workplace in our culture. Both are sick as a culture. It’s on my Bucket List to do ALL I can to reverse and/or transform this trend. Thank you for the post. These things are not a “right/left thing…..but a right/wrong thing.

  2. Reading this evoked feelings of a kindred spirit – something quite rare these days on the fractured and confused political left. Strategy and tactics are keys to success whether the battlefield is in war, politics, business, or any other competitive arena. Unfortunately, the wisdom of Sun Tzu is still hidden in plain sight for most I suppose. Great essay.

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