Hannibal – lesson in strategy

Volume 13 Letter 4

Long before roads and supply chains existed and two hundred years before Christ, a ragtag army marched over the most dangerous mountains in Europe and challenged the Roman Empire for control of the ancient world. With their horses and elephants in tow and against all odds, this band of Carthaginian mercenaries lead by Hannibal Barcca almost succeeded in overturning the Roman Empire and changing the course of Western history as we know it!

Hidden in this amazing story amidst the battles, elephants, horses and brilliant strategies can be found Hannibal’s greatest genius; his ability to band together an incongruous group of mercenaries to form an elite fighting force capable of challenging the Roman army. In his quest to topple Rome, Hannibal consistently applies his army’s strengths to bear on his opponent’s weaknesses. Many lessons can be drawn from Hannibal’s odyssey but perhaps the most compelling is that limited resources applied in a focused and disciplined manner can make a significant impact even when the challenges seem insurmountable.

In today’s business world the challenges can seem equally unconquerable. Granted our teams are no longer Balearic slingers and Numidia horsemen but pulling diverse groups of people together to accomplish seemingly impossible tasks is still the norm today. Here are a few of the lessons we draw from the Hannibal session that we teach on our Strategy program. They were as true 2220 years ago as they are today:

  • Base your strategy on clear objectives: In 218BC the Carthaginians departed from Spain to march over the Alps to Rome. If you stood at the gates of Saguntum and asked each soldier “where are you going”? Each soldier would have had one answer – “Rome”. If you stood at the door to your office building and asked “what will you accomplish over the next 2 – 3 years?” What would each person on your team say?
  • Understand your relative strengths and weaknesses: Hannibal recognized that his cavalry could not defeat a well-trained infantry and so each battle was fought in conditions that were difficult for the Roman foot soldiers; for example, in the mud in the plains of Northern Italy and in the narrow mountain pass of Lake Trasimene etc. Do you segment your markets and competitors? Do you hunt for a competitive advantage and fight your battles where you are strong? Or do you just hope for the best?
  • Plan long term: Hannibal was confronted by the Romans in southern France on his march through the Alps. Instead of fighting the Romans then and there, the Carthaginians marched away and avoided the battle. Although it seemed like a cowardly move, Hannibal kept the long term goal in mind. Had he taken the time to fight a battle in the south of France it would have delayed their march and the army would have frozen to death in the Alps and never made it to Italy. What is your long term plan? Do you review it often and stay focused on it?
  • Ensure you deploy and focus sufficient resources: On paper Carthage was no match for Rome. Hannibal’s troops were outnumbered in Cannae with an estimated at 25,000 Carthaginians vs 80,000 Roman troops but in a mere four hours 76,000 Romans were slaughtered! What resources do you have and do you effectively deploy them in a manner that can make a significant impact on your market?
  • Know your competitor’s strengths and weaknesses: Hannibal studied his competition intently. He knew each general he would face and prayed upon their weaknesses. For example, he knew General Sempronius was anxious for a decisive victory so he could to show Rome he was a great general and earn his place in the Roman senate. Hannibal prayed on his impetuousness tempting him into a well planned trap. In most industries, less than 10% of the customers make up 30% of the business. How well do you know that 10%?
  • Motivate your team: Motivation comes in different ways depending on the situation. At Cannae, facing overwhelming Roman opposition, the tension in Hannibal’s camp was thick! One Carthaginian general with an odd name, Gisgo, was surveying the situation and commented to Hannibal on the size of the Roman army. Hannibal responded saying “of all the 80,000 Romans I’ll bet there is one thing they don’t have”. The general asked “What’s that?” to which Hannibal replied, “A general with the name Gisgo!” 1 The small joke made Gisgo burst into laughter along with all the other commanders within earshot. The joke passed through the troops and soon the whole army was laughing. 80,000 Romans watched and wondered what could make such a small army laugh in the presence of certain death? Momentum has a strange way of shifting to those who are confident and know themselves! How do you motivate and inform your team?

Hannibal was one of the world’s greatest strategists. He took time to plan. Sun Tsu said it best.. “Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory. Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.” 2. Take some lessons from Hannibal – know your customers, know your competitors, know your market place and know yourself…….then take time to plan!

1. Actual quote is “Ah there is one thing about them more wonderful than their numbers … in all that vast number there is not one man called Gisgo”
2. Sun Tzu. The Art of War

Recent Posts