Business Strategy Influencers – General Erwin Rommel

Many military thinkers, including Sun Tzu and Napoleon, have provided strategic insights for business leaders.  One of my favorites was perhaps the most skilled German general of World War II.  Among his many successes, Erwin Rommel’s tank division was the first German unit in the 1940 attack on France to reach the English Channel. Moreover, Rommel’s 1941-42 leadership of the Afrika Corps has served as a classic example of maneuver and indirect warfare.  Throughout his service, Rommel developed a number of maxims on military strategy that have a direct bearing on how business leaders formulate and execute strategy.  Here are a few of his pearls of wisdom:

1.         See for yourself

Rommel regularly operated near the front so as to clearly understand the battlefield situation and to make immediate decisions when the tactical conditions changes. 

Management Learning:  Too often, executives do not spend enough time in the field talking with customers, channels and suppliers to get accurate, unbiased facts. In addition, being on the front lines often improves employee morale and generates goodwill with clients.

2.         Concentrate your force at the decisive point

Despite usually having numerically inferior forces, Rommel understood that if he concentrated his power at his adversary’s vulnerable point he could gain an overwhelming advantage. Splitting the Allied forces in this fashion enabled him to destroy them piecemeal at different times of his own choosing.

Management Learning:  Focusing resources at a competitor’s blind spot or weakly defended market (as opposed to their strongholds) can quickly lead to market penetration and the establishment of a defensible position. This strategy may also reduce your business risk as competition may not be prepared or able to counteract your moves.

3.         Surprise and speed are everything

In every campaign, Rommel endeavored to achieve tactical surprise, hoping to catch his foes disorganized and unprepared.  Once surprise was achieved, Rommel’s aim was to quickly exploit the advantage with highly mobile forces.  It was not an understatement that one of Rommel’s units was known as the Ghost division.

Management Learning:    Attaining first mover position enables new entrants to preempt an immediate and possibly lethal response while potentially building a sustainable advantage.  Furthermore, decisive executives understand that slow or poor execution is expensive, risky and fraught with opportunity cost of foregone revenue.

4.         Protect your supply lines

Rommel recognized that a high tempo, rapidly mobile army requires a flexible yet uninterrupted supply line.

Management Learning:  Rapidly growing and profitable markets requires supply chains that are reliable, scalable and efficient. In knowledge-intensive industries, prudent executives recognize the importance of maintaining their ‘human capital’ supply chains including effective recruiting and training.

5.         Outsiders often are more effective than insiders

Originally trained in the Alps as an infantry officer, Rommel went on to become a leading practitioner of tank warfare, both in the lush, rolling hills of Europe and the bleak deserts of North Africa.  As such, Rommel was not a prisoner of a static frame of reference, conventional wisdom or inherent bias.   His expertise lay in the mastery of many generalist skills including a genius for improvisation, a follow-me leadership style and a propensity for thorough research & planning.

Management Learning:   Rommel’s experience supports the view that effective leaders can come from outside of the home industry.  Possessing traits such as the ability to understand key customer & market drivers, being a creative problem solver and a passionate leader may be just as important as domain expertise.


5 comments so far

  1. Claire on

    Love it – there’s a good survey on a product management in financial services written by Medicor (I think that’s it) that when you line this analysis up with it, there’s an echo.

  2. mitchellosak on

    I will check that out. Thanks for the heads up and comment.

  3. Mike Lehr (@MikeLehrOZA) on

    Mitchell, thank you for posting this excellent summary of Rommel\’s management lessons. I found this post by searching \”Rommel management style\” and will using #1 on your list to supplement my post on change management concerning the importance of \”management by walking around.\” I\’m a fan of Rommel and military history/strategy so I frequently use military analogies to convey points. I just wanted to thank you for taking the time to write this post. I enjoyed it very much. ~Mike

    • Mitchell Osak on

      Mike, Thank you for your kind words. Like you, I am a big fan of applying military lessons to corporate challenges. I have 3 other postings on this blog that you may find interesting. I listed the articles titles below:
      > Teaching Strategy to Managers
      > Successful Strategy Execution – Lessons from the Military
      > Why Do Business Initiatives Fail?

      Good luck.


  4. […] Rommel, a World War II German general, was famous for touring and operating near the front lines so he could see the success and pace of his orders. As Rommel […]

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