Stop waiting for Han Solo

Relying on unidentified heroics is great for movies, but bad for business strategy.

This article contains a spoiler for the 1977 movie “Star Wars: Episode IV: A New Hope”. If you’ve never seen it, you’ve missed an important and largely wholesome artifact of modern popular culture, so please don’t read on until you watch it.

Geoff Wilson

Picture it. It’s a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away. You’re Luke Skywalker. It’s the final battle of “Star Wars: Episode IV: A New Hope”. In your X-sing starfighter, you’re bearing down on the small exhaust port that is the Death Star’s only known weakness. Your strategy says a proton torpedo or two delivered into that port will be all she wrote for the evil Empire’s new toy.

But Darth Vader and two henchmen are closing in on you in their roaring, menacing TIE fighters. You only need a minute more to triumphantly blow apart the Death Star as per the battle’s strategy—but Vader is seconds from destroying you instead.

As he locks his TIE fighter’s weapons on you, Vader unleashes a sinister, foreshadowing boast in James Earl Jones’ deep voice:

“I have you now …”

And he does. All appears lost. Your strategy isn’t going to make it. But then, out of nowhere, Han Solo and the Millennium Falcon blast Vader and his entourage out of the picture and into outer space. Solo exclaims those classic words:

“You’re all clear, kid. Now let’s blow this thing and go home.”

You are. You do. And you all go. Everyone gets a medal. The galaxy is safe—for now.

Now, back to the real world.

Exhale …

I’ve got news for you: Han Solo won’t save your business (or life) strategy. So don’t plan like he will.

Business strategy, like an excellent motion picture, is a narrative acted out. It’s supported by facts and demonstrated through action. Any good narrative—and many sound business strategies—can use all manner of plot devices. Cliffhangers, climaxes, twists, bluffs, foreshadowing, flashbacks, and feints are all in bounds.

But the one plot device that should never penetrate the documented realm of any strategy is called deus ex machina. Literally translated as “god from the machine,” it is “… a plot device whereby a seemingly unsolvable problem is suddenly and abruptly resolved by the contrived and unexpected intervention of some new event, character, ability or object.”

You see? Han Solo shows up out of nowhere and saves the day.

Examples of deus ex machina in business strategy are legion. Any time you review (or, God forbid, develop) a strategy that goes from point A to point Z, but you can’t find the connecting points between, you’re seeing this problematic plot device.

You’re probably part of a company today that has at least one business unit that plans for growth to rescue margins, acquisition to rescue growth, new products to rescue customer loyalty, or an expert new hire (his or her initials: TBD) to drive a new level of performance and engagement. But its done without growth plans, without an acquisition map, without articulating which products will unveil the promised land, and without the budget, candidates, or even value proposition to fill the open spot.

People who operate like this are waiting for Han Solo. Don’t wait for Han Solo. It’s dangerous. Here’s why.

Most long-term business strategies start with goals given by senior management, boards, or CEOs without more than vague notions of how to achieve them. The best of those goals constitute true “commander’s intent,” with end states in mind bounded by sets of values—definitions of what you won’t resort to in pursuit of excellence. Others are simply budget targets. We hit “budget as strategy” in another post; they can and do coexist, but tenuously.

Let’s assume the commander’s intent is your starting point. A beautiful strategic objective is therefore put in place, with an understanding of what we won’t do to achieve it. Own a market segment, grow at top quartile rates, be excellent to your customers. Be the most aggressive and the most admired simultaneously. Have it all.

But what if the strategy drawn up to get there relies on too many unidentified elements to succeed? It lacks specificity and shape. It is written as though the answer is “Trust us, we’ll figure it out.” In short, it is amorphous–not simply flexible, but in reality unbounded. “Han Solo will rescue us.”

Amorphous strategy creates at least three hazards that are brutally deleterious to an organization, your standing as a leader, and your own decision making:

  1. Creates confusion where there should be cohesion. All things are possible as long as they are even obliquely oriented toward the end objective. A thousand flowers bloom and quickly die due to shallow roots. In the end, scope creeps toward what is nearby and comfortable. Incrementalism abounds because it’s the least confusing option.
  2. Makes you, as the strategic leader, look like a short-term thinker. It leads organizations to believe that leaders are solely focused on the near term. Because there is no connective tissue between now and the future state, long-term strategies are viewed as mere window dressing. They are something you put on PowerPoint slides and show off at conferences, but don’t really believe in. More of the same, piled high and deep. All the advanced degrees. You get the picture.
  3. Confounds good decision making. Because the means and methods are undefined, principled decisions are hard to come by. Anything and everything can be “on strategy” and the same can be “off strategy.” Pet projects, politics, and personal peccadilloes can grow to dominate decision making vs. principled protection of proper perspective.

So what?

What are you to do? Here are a few practical ideas:

Believe in belief* – Yes, that’s right. Have a point of view and share it. The fog of war is no excuse. Practice the art of saying “I don’t know, but my hypothesis is …” vs. just artfully dodging the issue. If your business (or life) strategy isn’t built on a set of beliefs about yourself, your organization, your competitors, and the world around you, then you are, my friend, a sucker. Always have a hypothesis about what the savior will be and how you cultivate it. Test the hypothesis frequently.

Apply your beliefs to “Step 2” – If you have a strategy that is big and audacious (including a strategy for your career), it’s not sufficient to plan for incremental moves. Think of strategy as the often-quoted three-step framework. Step 1 in many, if not most, strategies is “Do what we are doing, only better.” Step 3 is usually some variant of the Jack Welch theme: “Be number one or number two in our market segment.”

You have to know at least the silhouette of what Step 2 is—especially if Step 3 requires a step-change in performance. Who would you acquire? What kind of product would you need to bring to market? What customer would you have to reach? What does your footprint need to look like? What capabilities should you build now?

If you can’t bridge the gap between Step 1 and Step 3, even conceptually, then you are now in possession of a powerful insight about the objective itself.

Pack for the journey – posted previously on the importance of answering the question “Have you packed for the journey?” If your strategy has a Step 1, 2, and 3, then ask yourself if you have resourced it and made the real risk/resourcing/return decisions necessary to go the distance. Many strategies founder on the rocks of stretched resources or capabilities—especially in today’s age of management by spreadsheet.

Pressure test the means – If you’re in a leadership or board position (or one that looks like it), be sure to ask about Step 2. Trust, but verify. A leader who demonstrates a grand strategy but cannot outline a practical step to get there is telling you something. Getting excited about an end objective is a good thing, but it shouldn’t crowd out sober assessment of the path to the objective.

You must ruthlessly eliminate the white knight, Prince Charming, Han Solo—pick your metaphor—from strategic planning. Using them as plot devices—or their relatives the unfunded mandate, growth by hockey stick, cost reduction by benchmark, and the unidentified acquisition—is strategy based on faith. It’s strategy by fairy tale.

A more direct appraisal is that it’s not strategy at all.

Han Solo doesn’t work on your team, so don’t plan as though he’ll save the day—or your strategy.

What do you think?

* I borrowed this adage as a direct homage to the late, legendary swimming coach Richard Quick. I’m glad to have known him. It was his motto, and it’s a good one.

The cure that kills

Corporate change programs can be toxic treatments unless heavily dosed with honest communication.

Geoff Wilson

Early in my career, I had a conversation with a mid-level manager (let’s call him Carl) within a large company undergoing a tense operational change. Carl was responsible for multiple small sites in the organization’s footprint. He led tens of people. It wasn’t hundreds or thousands, but still significant.

I was a fledgling consultant to top management at Carl’s company. My team was focused on designing the approach to the company’s change. In my conversation with Carl, I asked how things were done and what would help with the change.

The conversation was productive, but then Carl paused. I now know it was the pause that comes before someone actually breaks through the facade of their professional life. At that point in my career, however, I just thought he was thinking.

Carl then laid it out there: “All these corporate programs—I can’t tell which way things are going or why we are doing what we are doing.” He paused again, and then unleashed the words that have stuck with me ever since: “It makes you feel like a beaten dog. You flinch every time the corporate hand comes toward you because you are more used to it beating you than it helping you.”

And there, my friends, was a life-changing moment. It was life changing for two reasons:

  • Carl was an honest guy. He was trying to comply with corporate mandates—and was getting crushed in the process. He lacked access to any rhyme or reason for the change.
  • I had a core belief (now solidified) that no senior executive walks into the office seeking to foist valueless initiatives on his or her people for the sheer joy of creating confusion and frustration. (Side note: After years as an advisor and executive, I’ve known one or two executives who propagate valueless initiatives for the sake of their own ego, but not as real sadists. The end result is the same, but the intent isn’t)

In Carl’s case, the two sides of the circuit—top management and line leaders—had strong values and desires to do great jobs. But they weren’t connecting. The missed connection was consequently crushing drive and initiative where it was needed most.

In other words, initiatives, mandates, and highly valuable corporate performance programs driven from the top looked—to those most needed to buy into them—more like beatings than opportunities. They were systemic “cures” handed down from corporate offices that could literally kill local energy and focus. The programs dulled the edge of the very people meant to be sharpened by them.

Not only that, but the entire situation very quickly made senior leaders look like the “doctors” in this post photo. Not folks you’d seek out for a cure, eh?

In the history of medical science, many so-called cures have proven lethal not only to diseases, but also to patients. The history of cancer chemotherapy is rife with such instances. Actress/playwright Anna Deavere Smith deftly illustrated this concept in her solo play “Let Me Down Easy” when she wrote that cancer therapy is “like taking a stick and beating a dog to get rid of fleas.”

Corporate change programs—especially the big ones—sometimes have the same feel: indiscriminate cure targeting incorrigible disease launched against unassuming patients. A stick swung against the body, and then again but in a different way. Again. And again. And again. Striking nerves and tissue they don’t intend to strike, but doing damage anyway.

It’s a way of targeting performance that is often effective but sometimes lethal. Corporate change programs, like a stick used to beat a dog or a powerful chemical used to decimate a disease, can be a cure that kills. But the analogies break down at that point.

Why? Because we as corporate leaders are able to package and prepare our patients for our cure in a way that no canine or cancer patient’s body can ever be readied. We can turn the stick into a staff, or the chemotherapy into a nourishing concoction.

How? We can use the power of “why.” We can communicate not only what’s coming, but why it’s happening. We can explain the meaning of the action and its upside for stakeholders. In the cases of the worst outcomes—change programs that have necessary but terminal impact on some individuals—we can quite literally let those afflicted down easy.

We just need to take the time to do it. And do it repeatedly. And then to do it again. But how? Simon Sinek’s TED talk that encapsulates the concept of “starting with the ‘why'” is a helpful guide. For leaders to inspire action and minimize confusion, angst, and ultimately departure, we should ensure that the “why” reaches everyone the change impacts.

Summarizing change in a change story is a great way to start. Delivering it personally is even more captivating. Living the change out visibly is the ultimate approach. But there’s a catch: If you as an executive leader don’t change at all OR you change too often—especially if your “why” keeps changing while the world around you isn’t—you’re just swinging the stick in a different way.

Being outstanding at operations one quarter, great at growth the next, and excellent at efficiency the following only serves to show that you’re untethered from principle. That, or your principles aren’t what you’re packaging into your “why” to begin with. Either way, you resort to more of the same—except now, instead of death by confusion and randomness, you’re propagating death by disingenuousness.

Don’t be untethered, and don’t be disingenuous. You have to have vision and integrity.

Change leaders of all stripes: Stop beating your dogs. Use the power of preparation and communication. Drive performance by leading with the “why.”

Prescribe a cure that cures by preparing people for the treatment.

What do you think?

When Your Story Misses The Point

Narratives are fantastic…as long as they don’t skirt the point.


A couple of nights ago, I had the opportunity to watch the musical Les Misérables in NYC.

This was not the first time I had enjoyed the production.  I have fond memories of seeing the show about 15 years ago in San Francisco.  It was, however, the first time I’ve seen the show since actually reading the expansive and impressive book by Victor Hugo that the musical is based on.

The musical production was outstanding. If you’ve never seen it, it’s well worth your time. The music, the characters, the settings, and the story all combine into a moving experience.

But it got me thinking about something that might be relevant to our strategic management lives.

At the risk of going full literary nerd, I’ll try to keep this short.  Victor Hugo’s novel Les Misérables is a scathing polemic. It is a tour de force that takes apart real social issues of justice (and grace), poverty, class, politics, sanitation, and struggle.  The novelist went to great lengths to describe not only how things were in France, but why they were and perhaps what needed to change. This latter point he rarely takes on directly…leaving it instead to the reader to interpret his often sardonic references to things that just don’t make sense. He used characters to bring his narrative to life. And, he did that well. Hugo’s own words introducing the book show his purpose, and here they are.

So long as there shall exist, by reason of law and custom, a social condemnation, which, in the face of civilization, artificially creates hells on earth, and complicates a destiny that is divine with human fatality; so long as the three problems of the age—the degradation of man by poverty, the ruin of women by starvation, and the dwarfing of childhood by physical and spiritual night—are not solved; so long as, in certain regions, social asphyxia shall be possible; in other words, and from a yet more extended point of view, so long as ignorance and misery remain on earth, books like this cannot be useless.

Victor Hugo had a point.  He had an aim in writing the book (while in exile from his own country, I might add):  Illuminating the often senseless mechanisms of government and culture that conspire to destroy lives.  On some level, his illustrations ring as true today as they did 150+ years ago.

The musical play takes the characters and makes a stunning production–a stunning narrative–out of them, but only touches on the rest of Hugo’s point.  The play takes the characters–who were many ways incidental to Hugo’s point–and makes them the point.  And that ok, but only because one is a book and one is a play.  Which brings us (finally) to the point of this post.

The point…

Narratives–even really beautiful narratives that are moving and exciting and stimulating–can miss the point. This is true for a musical play on Broadway as much as it is for your leadership or business strategy.

The only difference is that people can still get their money’s worth from the Broadway play that is off point from the original work, while your business can run off the rails (and have you run off on  a rail) if you resort to creative narrative that misses your strategic imperative.

What do I mean by that?  Well, let me illustrate a few painfully real examples.

Company 1 has a real financial problem driven by the decline in demand for its products due to a real change in customer preferences. In small group sessions, management knows this reality and calls it out as a crisis.  In forming their creative and stimulating narrative, management buries the reality under a glossy brochure of product leadership, employee engagement, and brand.  The “book” that management writes confronts the issue directly.  The “play” almost buries it.

Company 2 has a clear threat from a much larger company whose product might also be better. In small group sessions management admits that its product might not be up to snuff.  In the narrative delivered to the entire organization, their own “outstanding product” is front and center.  The narrative misses the point of a real need to improve the product–urgently.

These examples are out there every day.  Why is it that more people have seen the play Les Misérables than have likely ever read the book?  Well, it’s because watching the play is easier.  It’s easier to digest and then to go on about your business.

And, that’s a good thing.  It’s the reason we use narratives to communicate strategy.  That’s why engaging employees around a great presentation or video or brochure can actually be effective.


The narrative has to be on point.  The story you form to communicate your strategy must not bury the point. It has to confront the elephants in the room.

I suspect that if Victor Hugo were to magically appear at a production of the musical version of Les Misérables he would be astounded and flattered…and he might see called out implicitly in the play some of the social ills he worked so hard to call out in his book.  But, he would probably also know how much the convenient and entertaining narrative leaves out.

And, sometimes, it’s what you leave out that matters.

I’d love to have your thoughts on this one.

The Worst Strategy Metaphor in Use Today

Choose your business metaphors wisely, because they say a lot about how you view the world.



One of the minor annoyances present in the business world is the use of metaphors that are resoundingly misfit.

How often do we talk about “blocking and tackling,” or “moving the ball down the field,” or “hitting singles and doubles,” or going for the “Hail Mary” in our everyday professional lives?

How many times have you heard even these simple ones mixed up, as in “I think it’ll be a home run, but the boss keeps moving the goal posts…”

Often. Right?

But every now and then, a metaphor is used so often it becomes a paradigm that is dangerous.

The metaphor of business as a “chess match” is one of them; and I’ll tell you why.

Chess and chess matches, when viewed in the light of the complexity and ambiguity of the business environment, are purely tactical. Chess is tactics. I write this despite the existence of a body of literature suggesting that the preparation, staging, execution, and ultimately winning of chess matches amounts to exacting preparation for business leaders…Strategic nirvana.

I’d argue it’s analytic nirvana–necessary but insufficient for a strategic metaphor.

Alas, chess as strategy is a bad metaphor for business mortals. While chess allows us to illustrate the depth of analytic thought on an issue (the best masters of chess can see deeply into a match to judge moves and patterns); it lacks the breadth of conceptual thought necessary to be an active analog for business strategy.

Mastery of tactical depth counts for something, to be sure. But mastery of strategic breadth, on the other hand, counts for everything.

The issue is that we conflate the two…Badly.

The most magnificent Chess minds spend thousands and thousands of hours mastering tactics. They learn every potential combination of openings and defenses. They spend their lives immersed within the very box of patterns and potential moves that, for some reason, has become synonymous with “strategy.”

They do this, and yet they have been mastered by machines. Think about that for a moment, and you can start to see why the game is based on patterns and repetition vs. intuitive, virtuosic strategic brilliance. The mechanistic logic of chess is its own prison, and thus is the reason chess is a bad metaphor for business.

Allow me to create the mental image of business as a chess match, then you be the judge of whether it rises to the level of a sufficient strategic paradigm:

Imagine that you and I both agree to play in a business arena where we:

  • Start with the same resources
  • Agree to the same set of moves
  • Operate on the exact same game board
  • Disregard comparative advantage
  • Agree not to move pieces in any innovative manner
  • Operate in a purely zero sum environment
  • Keep all moves open and transparent
  • Avoid arbitrarily upgrading or switching out pieces for pieces with more power
  • Prevent the lowly from ruling the mighty (as in the illustration above)
  • Avoid outside sources of power, resupply, or leverage (i.e., capital, partnerships, brand equity)
  • Will on average play to a draw if we both play the game as well as it can be played (“…chess is a draw” according to famous grandmaster Gary Kasparov)

…and so on.

Are we now engaged in a strategic struggle for the ages?


We’ve chopped all the degrees of strategic freedom save two: Our experience and our intellect. All the real world strategic levers I’ve outlined above lie in the negative space of a chess match.

In short, once you’ve taken nearly every strategic variable off the table, you are left with a chess match. It’s two people matching wits. That, folks, isn’t strategy, it’s a contest. It’s a highly regulated, constrained caricature of real world strategy.

Chess is a closed system. Real world strategy is an open system.

Strategy is about exploiting means to achieve ends. The first means anyone exploits in a strategic contest is whether to play on the terms available. While chess matches do offer the option of a “surrender,” to do so is to incur a loss and to provide a massive advantage to one’s adversary.

A second, and very important means, is the means of overinvestment. Overloading a single point of weakness (or strength) at a single point in time is a key real world capability. Put a team together to go after a single customer? Go ahead, it’s the real world. Overload on a chess board is a sequential thing, not an instantaneous one.

Other strategy games offer exit and overload options (like folding or going “all in” in the game of poker)–limiting losses or allowing asymmetric bets based on early indications that the game is or isn’t worth playing.

These moves are analogous to real world actions. But, they aren’t really an option in Chess.

If business were such that one could simply study all the moves in history and play the next match, it wouldn’t be all that tough, would it? That is essentially what has happened in chess. If it were so in business, IBM would have developed the Deep Blue machine for business back in the 1990’s and we would all be working for IBM at this point.

That, my friends, may be the best evidence for the misfit metaphor: If a computer can outwit a grandmaster (and they pretty much all can at this point), the game is one of logic and pure horsepower; not one of strategy.

If it were a game of strategy, the grandmaster would unplug the computer first, and then ask it to make its first move–while smiling of course.

Add to all this the cardinal observation that properly played chess will typically result in a draw (as noted above) and you have a very dangerous metaphor for your organization (implicitly, if you play well and lose, you did something wrong…Not always the case in business and life).

So, what?

I write this not to split hairs, but to illustrate the importance of the metaphors we put in front of our organizations–especially during times of change. So many of the metaphors we use are quirky; but some of them are downright dangerous.

If we are to pursue an enlightened approach to strategy, then using metaphors that speak to openness, flexibility, and canniness are much more on point than those that involve pure intellect applied to closed systems that imply no loss as long as strict discipline is maintained.

The metaphors you choose say a lot about how you view the world: Do you view your organization’s business environment as a closed, zero sum game, or something different?

File this one under strategy, change leadership, and perhaps curmudgeonly explication (as if LinkedIn needs more of that).

Note: The current Carlsen – Anand world chess championship match inspired thoughts for this article. Though the game of chess may not be a good business metaphor, the drama of championship chess matches can be quite a thing to behold and study.

Geoff Wilson is a strategy executive focused on the articulation of practical strategic principles for leadership. He also harbors the specific indignity of blundering into a fool’s mate one time in the 7th grade. He has just started a Twitter presence and still isn’t sure what to make of it, so consider following: @GeoffTWilson

The Chinese Food of Corporate Leadership

Attaching real change to ubiquitous communications can save you from providing an ultimately unsatisfying change experience for your organization, shareholders, and community. 

The best management science surrounding corporate performance transformation comes with a hefty dollop of behavioral science.

Focus on the people, start with the “why,” ensure purpose, drive for meaning… Anyone who has read the likes Heath, Pink, and Sinek see these soft aspects of transformation leadership writ large.

And they have their place, for sure.

The best transformational leadership and influencing models therefore come not only with tangible change agendas (initiatives grounded in real strategic issues a given company needs to solve) but also in strong influencing tactics, including emphases on structured communications and leadership behaviors to “show” that change is happening.

But, there’s a rub…

With an overwhelming set of tools available for communication these days ranging from in person to multimedia to social media, and with a solid base of “new age” thinking like those listed above directing companies to talk about purpose and reasons for action; companies can have an overweening focus on communication as the action itself.

The result?  Communications are delivered with very high-minded ideals but without much substance or action.

They become a passing thing, kind of like the full feeling after a Chinese food meal.  In 30 minutes, you wonder why you are so hungry again.

Thus, communication without grounding in action is the Chinese food of corporate leadership.

Why is it unsatisfying, and why do corporate leaders go there?

Why has this become the case?  I can list a few hypotheses…

  • Communication is typically deficient – Yes, that’s the starting point that leads to efforts to “lead with communication.”  Leaders are busy. They get distracted from the day to day hygiene of good, solid communication. So, they over correct.


  • It’s fashionable to demand transparency in organizations – It’s actually ok (and, indeed, I encourage it) for employees to seek meaning and reason for their work these days… So, leaders go to communication first because it’s what people want.


  • Communication has become simultaneously easier and harder – Employees can be bombarded with messages, creating a situation where the ease of communicating actually destroys the effectiveness of it (How many of you reading this read every corporate email you receive???  Hmmm?).  So, leaders can resort to it early and often, far easier, in fact than actually creating action.


So, leaders communicate, but they aren’t strategic about it.  They “flood the channel” with communication for communication’s sake.

And, in the process, they create a tone deaf employee base resistant to listening to most any communication.

The implication?  Enterprise-level and line-level leaders have to do a better job of connecting communication with actual action.

But, how? 

The easiest remedy to the Chinese food dilemma is to avoid creating tone deafness from the start by ensuring that strategic arguments delivered to the organization are backed with action.

However, that’s not always possible.

So, the next best thing is to attach communication as an adjunct to good, solid change management.

In one client partnership, we have accomplished this by attaching communications to explicit efforts and milestones in the company’s strategic plan.

We limit the commentary on what is “coming” since many changes that are “on the come” slip into oblivion, and stay very concrete with communications linked to actions that specific people are leading.

In this way, communications that previously might have sounded like “We are upgrading our approaches to product development” start to sound like “This week we launched an effort to re-draw our product prototyping process, led by Jane Smith and focused on providing customer impact in the next quarter…”

In this way, we provide a filling meal of communication and action on the same plate.  We also engage people around real concepts instead of nebulous, amorphous strategy-speak.

You should try it.

But beware:  Trying it may show you how far from action you already are.

Belling the Cat Part 2: Greece’s “Innovation”

Interesting commentary from Yanis Varoufakis, Finance Minister of Greece, published in the NYT a few days ago.


In the midst of a highly academic treatise on why his motives are really not to engage in any games, but rather to do “the right thing,” Varoufakis meets the strain a writer always does when he is forced to come up with the “SO WHAT?” to his argument.

What is his “so what” to the question of what Greece must do?

Well… Let’s let him tell you:

“Against such cynicism [about Greek motives] the new Greek government will innovate.”


In the midst of a house afire, the Greek finance minister proposes to pull a rabbit out of his hat.

In corporate environments, innovation has become a sort of conjured savior within strategic plans.

All that is left is to define what innovations, where, and when.

The Greeks are suffering from the same delusion, it seems.

This is another great example of high-minded rhetoric being used to avoid discussion of tough choices.

It’s belling the cat, all over again.

All that is left is to find the mouse who will bell the cat.


Belling the Cat Part 1: ISIS Root Causes

If you follow anything around U.S. foreign policy, you have probably seen the highly publicized comments from Marie Harf on how the root causes of the U.S. State Department cannot “kill our way” to victory over proponents of an Islamic state.

Here’s the video:


Steering clear of the politics that tend to bloom around comments of this type, Harf’s talking points are a striking instance of strategic leapfrogging.

First off, Ms. Harf is in all likelihood “right” about needing to address the root causes of ISIS’ ease of recruiting.

Second off, Ms. Harf is probably right about what the root causes may be.

However, her talking points ignore the reality of today, where ISIS is already marauding.  She leapfrogs to high concept and ignores low reality.

This happens often when unsavory or necessary tactics get in the way of high minded strategic nirvana.

Don’t want to talk about the ugly business of killing people who are, themselves, killing at will?

Start talking about how the root causes of the killing are in the socioeconomic dynamics in the free world and in the communities the killers reside within; and how it’s important to solve those…

This is a classic example of a speaker spouting high minded (and probably “right”) strategic principles to skirt the need for low-minded (and probably “necessary”) tactics.

Ms. Harf has been beaten up in the media plenty for her talking points, and in my opinion rightly so…  She is propagating a narrative that is essentially a redux of the old “belling the cat” fable.

To wit, from Wikipedia:

“The fable concerns a group of mice who debate plans to nullify the threat of a marauding cat. One of them proposes placing a bell around its neck, so that they are warned of its approach. The plan is applauded by the others, until one mouse asks who will volunteer to place the bell on the cat. All of them make excuses. The story is used to teach the wisdom of evaluating a plan not only on how desirable the outcome would be, but also on how it can be executed. It provides a moral lesson about the fundamental difference between ideas and their feasibility, and how this affects the value of a given plan.”

Strategists have to keep practicality in mind

Or else, even when they are right, they can be wrong.