General BusinessLeadershipManagement

Applying Military Strategy and Tactics to Business – Deception

[If you read any of the previous posts in this series, you may want to skip the next couple of introductory paragraphs and branch, jump or goto Deception in boldface, below.]

This is the last of a six-post series that discusses how, when, why and why not apply military strategy and tactics to business.  For the sake of some brevity, I won’t repeat my introduction to this topic but, if you’re interested, you can find it here in the preamble.  There are also a few more introductory words in the second post, here

In short, I’ve always had a difficult time mapping military strategy to business, although I’ve always been compelled to.  It seems so natural to take stories of great military exploits and use what was learned from them to advance a business idea or improve on its execution.  Among the many problems in doing this, though, are questions about when to apply a particular strategy; does the organization have the competence to execute against that strategy; and can one correctly interpret what actually made a particular military strategy or tactic successful, especially once applied in a business context with its inherently slower feedback.

That said, the legends of military successes and failures are great teachers.  Not so much for the direct application of what a military leader did at some time, but in presenting a palette of potential actions.  The stories and analogies are also good because they are easy to remember and are great tools for leading others.

In my view, there are a small set of profound lessons to be learned from the great military commanders and their exploits through the ages of warfare.  Lessons is the key term here, not specific strategies or tactics.  In my effort to communicate what I believe that some of these lessons are, I’ll try to toss in a few military stories that indicate to me why these particular lessons are so important and can be readily applied to business.  The lessons are:

Today’s final episode of applying military strategy and tactics to business is . . .


If you’re like me, you immediately question how deception can and should be applied to business.  In a business context, the concept of deception seems almost immoral or, at least, against the rules – if not the legal ones, at least the ones understood as part of business decorum, civility or fair play.  Who wants to win by cheating, after all?

There is little concern for such concepts in modern warfare (historically, much of warfare was conducted under a code of ethics – aside from the Geneva Convention rules, no such code exists today), however, where the goal is most often the physical destruction of the enemy.  In battle, a commander’s trickery and deception can easily represent the difference between victory and death.

There are few better examples of this than the campaigns of Confederate General Thomas Jonathan “Stonewall” Jackson and his army during the Civil War in the US.  Stonewall Jackson is widely considered as one most gifted tactical commanders in US history.  His motto: “Mystify, mislead and Surprise.”

Early in the Civil War, during the infamous Valley Campaign, Jackson found his Army outmanned, outgunned and often, surrounded.  After an initial tactical defeat in a relatively small battle, Jackson’s 17,000 troops soundly defeated the Union’s 60,000 man Army of the Potomac.  He accomplished this feat by constantly surprising the enemy, attacking its flanks, sneaking behind its lines and appearing like his forces were larger than they actually were.  During the campaign, Jackson marched his troops almost 650 miles in 48 days to defeat and cause the retreat of a Union Army that outmanned him almost 4:1.  Trickery and illusion were his key tactics in the Valley Campaign and he used them frequently in successive victories during the war and until his death in battle (from friendly fire) in 1863.

Like Jackson before him, Erwin Rommel was a master of deception.  Even though Rommel was primarily a tank commander – relatively easy to detect and slow-moving – he often got the upper hand on his enemies by sneaking his tanks through dense forests or via indirect routes. 

Rommel is best known for his success during WWII’s North African Campaign where he consistently defeated the better armed and staffed British Army.  His understanding of how the British tank command worked led him to implement the most important tactic to his success during the campaign – making the British believe that his forces were much greater than they were.  This, in turn, caused the British to split their forces, leaving many tanks in reserve (they conservatively never wanted to risk all their tanks in battle) and gave Rommel’s smaller force a far better chance at success.  The deception turned out to be the key that initiated his victories.

Rommel implemented this by making his tanks appear to be in locations where they were not.  He would frequently have trucks drive in circles throughout the day in one area.  The clouds of dust they kicked up would be so extreme that the British assumed that there were huge tank convoys preparing to entrench themselves for battle at that location.  In the mean time, Rommel, would move his active tank columns at night into flanking positions around the British.  Rommel’s ability to deceive the British let his smaller and weaker force win battles for years in the desert.

In a business world that thrives on communication and rewards the speed and quantity of information available, it’s difficult to see how deception might be used in a strategy leading to success.  After all, anything you do to mislead your competition might mislead your customer as well.  There are a few uses of deception, however, that are commonly used and are valuable tools in the business strategy quiver:

  • Press releases as a defensive tool:  Most often successfully employed by medium to large companies, a me-too press release announcing that your company has or will have some product, feature or service that your competitor just launched can effectively slow your competition’s sales process down until you actually have it.  This is especially effective if you are already the perceived market leader in that particular segment.  Switching costs are, generally, high and current customers want to believe that you’ll continue to deliver the best stuff.  Of course, this won’t hold your competition off forever, but it will allow you a bit of time to catch up.
  • Appearing bigger than you are as an offensive tool:  Larger companies often prefer to purchase from established vendors.  Of course, this depends on what you are selling and how much it costs, but it is generally true for anything even remotely mission critical or costing a lot.  Giving the world the impression that your company is larger or better established than you are can only help you in this environment.  This can be done through advertising – small companies generally do little-to-none, big companies do a lot; large, highly visible displays at trade shows; success stories from large customers; focusing on implementation instead of just functions or features; and so forth.
  • Taking advantage of the reactionary nature of your competition:  Companies tend to react without thinking instead of responding in a thoughtful, considered way.  You can take advantage of this by misleading your competition, when appropriate, in an effort to waste their time or defocus them.  In the most basic case, you can entice them to spend energy in areas that are outside your main focus, giving you more lead time when you introduce your own new product or service.  Keep in mind that when you implement strategies like this, you don’t get a bye on precise execution.  You still have to execute well – if you can’t execute your company’s strategy better than your competition can execute on the same strategy, no amount of deception will help you.

Certainly, deception in the form of outright lying and cheating is a dead-end strategy.  It might work out in the short term, but it’s going to get you in trouble in the long term.  Defined a bit softer, though, as a method for manipulating or spinning reality (I know, I’m cutting this a bit thin, but you get the idea), it is almost as powerful a tool in business as it is in warfare and is one that can be employed to increase your opportunities for success.


  1. Appearing big example — I knew of a company that once put people in a subway holding fake newspapers. The backpage of the “newspaper” was an ad for their company, so everyone sitting around the person thought the company had taken a full page ad out in the local newspaper.

  2. Appearing big example — I knew of a company that once put people in a subway holding fake newspapers. The backpage of the “newspaper” was an ad for their company, so everyone sitting around the person thought the company had taken a full page ad out in the local newspaper.

  3. Ben, Perfect example.  I had never heard of that.  I love it.  A great way of appearing big at low cost. Thanks.

  4. Ben,

    Perfect example.  I had never heard of that.  I love it.  A great way of appearing big at low cost.


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