In November 2014, I wrote a piece, “What can military planning teach us about creating transformative change?” Here was my lede:
Can an understanding of military strategy and tactics yield important lessons for achieving social change? With America’s Veterans’ Day upon us tomorrow, I thought I might acknowledge some of those lessons.
Yup, 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, I have a lot of respect for many of those who serve in the military, and I believe that we have much to learn from the best military leaders.
I went on to share how these lessons can inform planning for positive social change:
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 beat 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
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.
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 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 a societal challenge, the harder it can be to advocate effectively. May our hearts continue to fuel our passions, with our actions guided by our heads.
Learn from mistakes, even (especially!) gruesome ones
If you study the biographies of great military leaders, you will see that many of them made fairly big mistakes and experienced setbacks on the way to their signature successes. They learned from their mistakes and stayed determined to succeed.
Lesson: There’s no substitute for experience and the capacity for continued growth. This includes the lessons we learn from our miscues.
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 stoked 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, the Allied nations 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 outreach 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?
Let’s apply these lessons to advocacy for dignity at work
Yup, I understand that references to war planning may make some folks uncomfortable. But I’ll stick to my point: We can learn a lot from military strategists and tacticians when it comes to organizing for change.
And that includes advocacy for workplace dignity.
Right now, those who want to aggrandize their money and power have the strong upper hand over those who want a society grounded in fairness, kindness, and human dignity. Too many of our workplaces reflect and advance these dynamics. Good, steady jobs with decent pay and benefits continue to diminish. Wide pay disparities remain. The relational and emotional dynamics of work continue to subject way too many workers to bullying, harassment, and incivility. In the meantime, labor unions continue to be under siege and are treated as “special interests” rather than bulwarks of a civil society.
In other words, we’ve got our work cut out for us. We need to do a better job of planning our way back, and we could do worse than to draw lessons from those who have dealt with conflict involving some of the highest stakes imaginable.