Strategic Lessons from Great Minds (Part 1)

By | March 31, 2020

[March 31, 2020]  It’s not easy to think like a strategic leader.  To do so is not common.  Strategic thinking is learned, is complex and often counterintuitive, and forces us to move out of the comfort of tactics.  In this three-part series, I’ll be laying out a foundation on strategic lessons from great minds of the past.  Hardly a day goes by that I don’t see these lessons being applied by successful leaders across the world.  It’s time we all got in on the act.

Strategy, as either an art or science, is rarely taught properly.  I’ve participated in many “strategic development” military seminars, civilian discussion groups, and university classes.  What they all have in common is that nearly all of them, surprisingly, do not teach strategy.  Most often, these attempts to develop strategic thinking are stuck at the advanced level of tactics and never move into true strategy.  There is no need to go into why this occurs since I’ll leave that up to the reader to decide.

In the past here at, I wrote about strategy and those articles give a good background (see a few here, here, and here).  I recommend reading them when you get the opportunity.  The article titled “Great Strategic Blunders” is most enlightening.  The theme of each of these articles is that strategic wisdom is developed through relevant experience and a proper formal education.

What follows are a number of the most important grand strategic lessons one can have and use.  I give examples, as well as the name of one of the great minds that employed this specific strategy.  Here they are, in no particular order:

  1. Don’t get Surprised: The job of a strategist is to know where you are and where you’re going.  As such, seeing the big picture and obstacles is crucial.  As we know, things don’t always go according to plan so be ready for what’s coming your way.  S. Army General Matthew Ridgway distinguished himself as a strategic thinker in both WWII and the Korean War.  A sign on his desk read, “The only inexcusable offense in a commanding officer is to be surprised.”  This is similar to the Boy Scout motto “be prepared.”  A leader knows the kinds of problems in planning for a major event but they should also be familiar with what may happen to throw the plan out of sync.  There is never an excuse for a leader to get surprised by the enemy or competitor.
  2. Focus on the “What,” not the “How:”  S. Army General George Patton once said “Don’t tell people how to do things, tell them what to do and let them surprise you with their ingenuity.”  Patton had a knack for succeeding when others failed.  Strategic leaders keep their eye on the ball if they plan to hit it.  Such leaders never forget their goal.  They constantly remind themselves what they are trying to accomplish.  By keeping their eye on the ball, all things will come to them.  As a young Army Lieutenant, I had a commander who told me to keep my mind focused on the mission because I certainly was not doing it (in his opinion).  I worked hard not to get distracted by how my troops were carrying out the mission but more on what the mission was about in relation to our goals.

The next two parts of this series will not all fall together but I plan to have them out this week.

Author: Douglas R. Satterfield

Hello. I'm Doug and I provide at least one article every day on some leadership topic. I welcome comments and also guests who would like to write an article. Thanks for reading my blog.

21 thoughts on “Strategic Lessons from Great Minds (Part 1)

  1. Army Captain

    Gen. Satterfield, I’m enjoying your ‘strategic lessons’ series so far. I will suggest one for your last-in-the series, “use the enemy’s strength against them.” Hope you find this useful. Again, thanks and well done!

  2. Max Foster

    US Pres candidate Joe Biden is not showing leadership. He is not prepared. His lack of leadership in this nation’s pandemic shows his lack of qualifications to be a president. Biden’s campaign has a deficit of important fundraising. Unless the ex-veep can come out as a forceful voice of reason and competence in the coming weeks, his path to the White House will be in the toilet.

    1. Bryan Lee

      Just another example of getting surprised and failing to adapt.

      1. Jane Fillmore

        Something is mentally wrong with “Slow Joe” Biden. Everyone knows it, no one admits it. This is like seeing a bunch of people in a room and no one sees the gorilla. Our ideologies make us blind.

    1. Scotty Bush

      Throngs of New Yorkers ignored social-distancing rules (sigh) to greet Comfort as she pulled into her berth near West 50th Street. However ill-advised, the spontaneous demonstration shows how much the city appreciates this tangible sign of the nation’s support.

  3. Otto Z. Zuckermann

    I’m looking forward to the series. I would like to suggest another topic for Gen. Satterfield. Maybe he could write something about how the World Health Organization has failed the world in getting ahead of pandemics like the one we are in now. Maybe they have just become corrupt chasing liberal causes and hoaxes. ?

    1. Jerome Smith

      Good thinking Otto. I am with you on that. Corruption is common in long-standing organizations. Why? Maybe that can be explored.

      1. Bill Sanders, Jr.

        Yes, and I continue to enjoy this leadership website. Thank you Ken for your support of us here.

  4. Ruth M. McMasters

    “Be prepared” just like the Boy Scout motto. I was a boy scout and that is why, I believe, I’ve been so successful in life when many of my cousins and brothers have not done as well. Maybe add this one in, Gen. Satterfield. Just my thinking.

  5. Dale Paul Fox

    I found surprising that strategic thinking is rarely taught but that they are simply teaching advanced strategies. Why would this be? Most of my training in the civilian world was not about strategy because they don’t understand it but I would think that the military is highly focused on it. Interesting ideas presented here today. i’m suggesting that Gen. Satterfield continues to enrich us with these lessons.

    1. Joe Omerrod

      I think most of the readers of Gen. Satterfield’s leadership blog know me by now as one of the long-time fans but I do believe this is the strong part of the articles when he discusses strategy. I would also like to see more book reviews on strategy and how that separates from tactics.

    2. Harry Donner

      Me too, Dale and in many cases strategic lessons are simply not taught at all. That is what should really be surprising. No wonder civilians are quick to drift off course.

  6. JT Patterson

    I will propose that one of the future “strategic lessons” will be to take the indirect route. Don’t take on the enemy head to head but use another route so you won’t take so many losses.

  7. Newbie Yunger

    great start. i look forward to the rest of the 3-part series. thanks, gen. satterfield.

    1. Tom Bushmaster

      I haven’t seen you in theLeaderMaker forums before. Welcome to our world! Please comment as often as you would like. I think you will find us supportive and able to help you hone your argument skills.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.