War and Peace – a business primer for our time

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War and Peace is probably one of the greatest novels ever written and a book with important lessons for readers of the world’s business newspaper. How could a nineteenth-century Russian have understood modern business realities so well?

War and Peace is probably one of the greatest novels ever written, and one of the longest. It is, therefore, a book for the holiday season. A book with important lessons for readers of the world’s business newspaper.

Many historians seek to explain political and economic developments in terms of causes and effects, in terms of movements and patterns, instigated and implemented by great men (or, less frequently, women).

Tolstoy parodied this approach to history. “Louis XIV was a very proud and self-confident man: he had such and such mistresses and such and such ministers and he ruled France badly……At the end of the 18th century a couple of dozen men in Paris began to talk about all men being free and equal. This caused people all over France to begin to slash and drown one another. . . At that time there was . . . a man of genius – Napoleon. He conquered everyone everywhere – that is, he killed many people because he was a great genius.”

This style is familiar from business books and magazines. If history is, as Thomas Carlyle said, the biography of great men, business is the achievement of powerful chief executives. Modern industrial structure unfolds through the mistakes of Gerald Levin of AOL Time Warner and the genius of Microsoft’s Bill Gates.

For Tolstoy, the focus on heroic individuals was nonsense. The adventures of his everyday characters were not just a means of telling history: they were history itself.

Historians claimed to discern patterns when they were actually using hindsight to impose them on a disordered reality. The great men whose activities were recounted were not the people who determined the course of events, but the people who happened to occupy positions of leadership when events occurred.

And so Tolstoy tells of Napoleon’s performance at the decisive battle of Borodino. “It was not Napoleon,” Tolstoy claims, “who directed the course of the battle, for none of his orders were executed and during the battle he did not know what was going on …..(He) fulfilled his office as representative of authority as well as, and even better than, at other battles. He did nothing harmful to the progress of the battle, as he inclined to the most reasonable opinions, made no confusion, did not contradict himself, did not get frightened or run away from the field of battle, but with great tact and military experience carried out his role of appearing to command calmly and with dignity.”

Such was the reality of generalship: and modern executives are similarly in charge of organisations and events that operate and change in ways largely outside their control. When they despair over the failure of their programmes of change management, they are frequently as distant from the reality of what is happening to customers as Tolstoy’s generals were from events on the battlefield. Anyone who has sat through a PowerPoint presentation will recognise the description of the preparations for Austerlitz. “When the monotonous sound of Weyrother’s voice ceased, Kutuzov opened his eyes as a miller wakes up when the soporific drone of the mill wheel is interrupted. The Russian general finally brings proceedings to a halt. ‘Before a battle there is nothing more important – he paused – than to have a good sleep’.”

And anyone who has attended a board meeting will recognise the council of war at Drissa at which irrelevant opinions are vigorously debated. Prince Andrei Bolkonsky, Tolstoy’s observer, “sympathised most with Pfuel, angry, determined and absurdly self-confident as he was…..Of those present evidently he alone was not seeking anything for himself…..He was ridiculous, and unpleasantly sarcastic, but yet he inspired involuntary respect by his boundless devotion to an idea.”

At the conclusion of the Drissa meeting, Andrei “lost his standing in court circles forever by not asking to remain attached to the sovereign’s person, but for permission to serve in the army”. The success of a military action, Andrei concludes, depends not on commanders, but on the man in the ranks: “only in the ranks can one serve with assurance of being useful.” How could a 19th century Russian have understood modern business realities so well?

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