Mastering the Oblique

By jer979!! | | 28 May 2020

tl;dr: Lessons from Frederick the Great’s victory at Leuthen to thrive in a post-coronavirus world.

My son and I have an emerging custom in our mutual interest in strategy.

Once a week, on the afternoon of the Sabbath, we each take turns reading about one general from a large, coffee table type book, called Great Commanders and Their Battles.

Then, we “break down” the battles as if we had just watched an NFL or NBA game.

It’s not for everyone, but we enjoy it.

Thus far, we’ve read about Gustavus Adolphus’ victory at the Battle of Lützen in 1632 and the Duke of Marlborough at Oudenaarde in 1708.

This past week, we read about Frederick the Great‘s victory at Battle of Leuthen in 1757.

Each of the battles has much to teach about strategy and real-time decision-making, but Frederick’s maneuver at Leuthen stood out for two reasons, discipline and the oblique.

The Leuthen Maneuver

Without going into a very (though somewhat) prolonged explanation of the battle, I’ll summarize as follows.

Frederick took advantage of the terrain near Leuthen and used the hills that were between him and this enemies (the Austrians/French/Russians) as a shield, while his troops pulled off a very complicated maneuver.

Essentially, a large group of his troops all were marching south in one formation and then, in a matter of minutes, they all swung around to the West and did so with such precision that the calvary was on the wings and the infantry was in the middle. Perfect battle formation.

From our vantage point, it doesn’t sound like a big deal, but in the open field, with war-weary troops, under threat of enemy fire and discovery, against a vastly numerically superior force, it was pretty remarkable.

The move, made possible because the Prussian army was the most well-disciplined and thoroughly trained/drilled army in all of Europe, put Frederick at a distinct advantage.

Initially, the lines of the enemy were parallel to his and, to gain their attention and keep them guessing, he had sent a feint attack directly at their lines.

This engaged their attention and created a “fog of war” situation that allowed the bulk of his army to do the southward-westward maneuver.

By the time the dust had cleared and the mass of his forces had swung around, like dancers in a well choreographed performance, his entire line was spread out at a perpendicular angle to the far southern end of the enemies.

In other words, he was spread wide, while his enemies were aligned deep.

It’s hard to shoot at the enemy when there are a ton of your own soldiers right in front of you.

Not only did Frederick have the element of surprise, his position, as a result of this maneuver put him at immense strategic advantage.

He subsequently went about with a near-total annihilation of the enemy that day.

This was all possible because Frederick understood the “oblique.”

It’s the Oblique that Wins

But don’t take it from me, take it from Sun Tzu in the Art of War

“In all kinds of warfare, the direct approach is used for attack, but the oblique is what achieves victory.

A general who understands the use of the oblique has a source of tactics as as inexhaustible as Heaven and Earth, which like the Rivers and the Oceans, will never run dry.”

p.49 of Trapp version of Art of War

Leaving aside the obvious fact that Sun Tzu may not be familiar with climate change, we can see in Frederick’s maneuver a very clear understanding of this principle.

Why is this important?

What does it mean to be oblique?

I think it’s not just a physical position in the field. It’s a mindset. It’s a willingness to think and act orthogonally.

Today, the “fog of war” sits upon all of us, caused by our newest enemy -coronavirus.

There’s the oblique in terms of how to fight the virus. That’s above my pay grade.

But there’s also the oblique in terms of how each of us responds to the new economic, political, and social environment (the Zeitgeist).

We have to find a source of renewal in our thinking and our execution.

In Book of 5 Rings, Miyamoto Musashi provides clarity as to how we find a renewed perspective…and that it’s not only ok, but imperative, that we do that.

“To renew” applies when we are fighting with the enemy, and an entangled spirit arises where there is no possible resolution.

We must abandon our efforts, think of the situation in a fresh spirit then win in the new rhythm.

To renew, when we are deadlocked with the enemy, means that without changing our circumstance we change our spirit and win through a different technique.”

Miyamoto Musashi, Book of 5 Rings

The last line is my favorite, “without changing our circumstance we change our spirit and win through a different technique.”

To me, the “different’ technique is the oblique.

Being Different

And speaking of “different.”

I’ve probably read 500 books on marketing and the best one is probably Different, by Youngme Moon (blog review here).

She spends a nice amount of time decrying the tendency toward mediocrity and same-ness among so many brands.

However, she emphasizes:

“I believe that there will always be positive deviants, brands that are exceptional, not because they are able to run harder or faster than the rest, but because at some fundamental level they have made a commitment to not taking the status quo for granted.”

Different, by Youngme Moon

Exceptional brands have made a commitment to the oblique.

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