Strategy: A History by Lawrence Freedman (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013. 768 pp)

Lawrence Freedman studied at Whitley Bay Grammar School, Victoria University of Manchester, University of York, and University of Oxford. Freedman has held positions at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, Royal Institute of International Affairs, and currently as Professor of War Studies at King’s College London. He was elected Fellow of the British Academy, appointed Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire, and Knight Commander of the Most Distinguished Order of St. Michael and St. George.

What’s It All Mean Anyway?

There’s a lot going on in the world. Be careful or you might get run over. With millions of people attempting to accomplish their own ends, no wonder conflict and competition causes challenge. We are all ingrained with a certain level of desire to win, to achieve greater.

Perhaps such desires emerge from the hope of being known. The victors, as they say, write history.

With conflict and competition, a carefully crafted plan must push forward a strategy toward a desired end. And strategy, as Lawrence Freedman suggests in this tome, has a history.

The History of Strategy

Strategy, then, explores its application throughout human history.

Each chapter, in fact, unpacks a specific viewpoint or actor in the history of strategy, starting in antiquity with Greco-Roman and biblical views, unpacking the positions of the great military minds from Sun Tzu and Machiavelli to modern warfare. Freedman continues with an exploration of strategy from below, as ideas try to build a grassroots movement toward popular adoption. Finally, Freedman discusses how strategy has become a clear point of value for businesses.

So what is strategy? Freedman suggests:

“By and large, strategy comes into play where there is actual and potential conflict, when interests collide and forms of resolution are required. This is why a strategy is much more than a plan. A plan supposes a sequence of events that allows one to move with confidence from one state of affairs to another. Strategy is required when others might frustrate one’s plans because they have different and possibly opposing interests and concerns” (xi).

Strategy, then, aims to addresses root causes and to map solutions understanding the complexity of environment.

Views on Strategy

Depending on your worldview and your context, strategy might vary drastically in application. Consider a Biblical view of strategy:

“On this reading, God created strategy by allowing choice, because he wanted people to choose obedience through an act of will rather than because they were programmed to do so. Even if individuals were part of a divine plan that had been set out at the moment of creation, they were allowed the sensation of choice and the ability to calculate and plan. The Bible tells of human choices regularly being manipulated by God to create the situations in which his greatness would become apparent” (11).

A theological position where God allows choice for people to act and plan in accordance with God’s greater plan differs greatly from a strategic definition from Machiavelli.

“Although Machiavellian has become synonymous with strategies based on deceit and manipulation, Machiavelli’s approach was actually far more balanced. He understood that the more the prince was perceived to rely on devious methods, the less likely it would be that they succeeded. The wise strategist would seek to develop a foundation for the exercise of power that went beyond false impressions and harsh punishments, but on real accomplishments and general respect” (53).

Finding Value in Strategy

While these debates offer interesting insight into the formulation of strategy over the centuries, the value of Strategy for me arrives in its ability to outline how this history translates itself into practical application in the world of work.

Freedman writes,

“Organizations needed an uplifting sense of purpose and individuals an allegiance to the ‘sublime and the majestic’ and a cause greater than oneself” (551).

In other words, strategy in the business realm can be an excellent application of purpose in order to point a team in the same direction.

Strategy as purpose resonates greatly with me as the statistics surrounding work and quality of life seem staggering. Almost everyone hates their work to varying degrees and they don’t feel like it can be redeemed. But perhaps a better executed strategy connected to collective purpose could change that.

Freedman also writes extensively on the power of story and narrative to enact strategy.

“The features of a good plot are therefore shared between drama and strategy: conflict, convincing characters and credible interactions, sensitivity to the impact of chance, and a whole set of factors that no plan can anticipate or accommodate in advance” (624).

So, then, the strategist works toward a compelling story that presents the main challenge and unites everyone toward the desired solution.

Perhaps when we ask each other about a desired strategy, we should, instead, question the preferred story.

As long as the world remains a complicated and exhaustive place, strategy will be an important aspect of action. Write your story and be ready to adapt. Lawrence Freedman provides a compelling history in Strategy. If you’ve got the time, give it a read.

Verdict: 4 out of 5

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