Defining Strategy

Defining strategy: An historical perspective of the word that drives QUAD Model.


  1. Sun Tzu and The Art of War

Late in the 6th Century BCE, as the Spring and Autumn period in Ancient China began to taper off, two divergent philosophies were contending for influence in society. On the one hand was the humanistic worldview of Confucianism: based on mutually dependent relationships, harmony in society was revered and the moral rectitude of superiors assumed (but classic Confucianism doesn’t lend to conflict avoidance or blind obedience to authority, as some suggest). The other hand, guided by battlefield strategies and combat tactics detailed in Sun Tzu’s The Art of War, saw to managing conflict altogether differently.


The strategic methods ironed out in Tzu’s War have swayed all manners of thinkers and doers across all kinds of fields for ages, right up to Coach Belichick’s guerrilla gridiron–no surprise there, amirite? But perhaps the most potent application of Tzu’s guidelines for victory over the competition, at least in modern times, has been in the business world. (Rather than expound on the details, I offer you this HuffPost article on why The Art of War sets corporate hearts a-flutter.)


Sun Tzu is credited as first among the Ancients to formally document a strategic plan for victory; for all intent and purposes, War has always worked. Thus the modern concept of strategic planning owes homage to the ancient Chinese militarist. But for the origins of the word strategy, the derivative we use today, we must shift our focus to Ancient Greece.


  1. Strategos in Classical Athens

The office of strategos existed in Greece before Cleisthenes, the “father of Athenian democracy,” seized authority from his rival, the archon Isagoras,, and reformed Athens’ constitution in 507 BCE (strategos therefore existed before Sun Tzu penned his epic treatise, but I digress). This new constitution, based on reforms pursued by Athenian statesman Solon years prior, cemented the position of strategos, ergo the root of strategy, at the apex of Greece’s politico-military system.


The democratization of Athens established the election of strategoi (generals) from Greece’s newly formed phyles (tribes). With each man being of equal status to the others, these ten formed a board that shared responsibilities and decision-making. These strategoi, even distinguished rhetorician Pericles, were held accountable by the citizens of Athens. The golden age of aristocratic decadence and debauchery was over–for a while. What followed was a series of blows dealt to Greece by the Macedonians and Romans. The downfall of Athenian democracy began with Pericles’ death from plague in 429 BCE and ended 400 years later with the absorption of Greece into the Roman Empire.


Scholars have argued since ancient times, albeit from conflicting perspectives, that failure was built into the Athenian model. Aristotle, for one, argued that only citizens of superior virtue are capable of harnessing democracy for the greater good. Plato blamed the institution of democracy for the death of Socrates; Karl Popper later shifted the onus of failure onto the shoulders of the people and off the otherwise inorganic institutions they built.


One last criticism, apropos of one of the vilest periods in US history, holds that the subjugation of women and predominance of slavery in Greek society means Athens never was a democracy.


  1. The methodology and philosophy of Michael E. Porter

The underlying principles of strategy are enduring, regardless of technology or the pace of change.”


Michael Eugene Porter, a Harvard Business School professor, has plenty to say about strategy. He’s authored a number of articles and published 18 books on the subject since the late 70s. In his book The Competitive Advantage of Nations, Porter defines “competitive advantage” in terms of a nation’s innovative capacity and ability to upgrade its industries. He describes a symbiotic system of four interdependent values for calculating said advantage (his “national diamond” reminds me of the Square of Opposition from classical logic, tipped onto one of its corners). What results from this calculation, per Porter’s methodology, is “the environment in which [a company is] born and [learns] how to compete.”


Porter states that prosperity is non-inherent and that “[s]tatic efficiency is far less important than dynamic improvement.” It’s not only inherently disadvantageous to assume a right to affluence or power, but, for institutional progress, change is of equal necessity and import. Confucianism by its very nature disagrees with the first part of Porter’s philosophy, but competitive advantage is hardly the byproduct of harmony.


As for the second part, unlike its sister-city Sparta (and yes, Sparta had its own set of problems and eventually fell), Athens failed to improve the stations of more than just its male citizens; it managed to maintain the status quo in what was then hailed as a sweeping reform. So maybe the downfall of Athenian democracy was built into its institution after all.


  1. Competitive advantage, or strategic planning in a nutshell


The Greek spelling, στρατηγός, and usage of strategos (the Hellenic army still refers to its highest ranking officer as stratigós, or “army leader”) have gone unchanged since before Classical Athens gave us the word democracy. The principal application of strategic planning in the corporate world still reflects and respects Sun Tzu’s intent. Not all strategies are successful–read: Athenian democracy–but there’s something to be said about the fundamental form and nature of a word seeming to endure in perpetuum.


Strategy still means what it’s always meant. It’s observing the landscape relative to your market or objective and best accounting for organic and inorganic influences. It’s the careful consideration of actions and the scope and depth of subsequent consequences. Strategy is observing limitations or deficiencies in your competitor’s approach and utilizing them to your advantage. It’s plotting your next three moves before you make your first.


To be a student of history is to know that plans are not inherently fail-proof. The mark of a decent strategist is to urge companies to eschew the quick gratifications offered by short-sighted tactics in favor of the dynamic growth earned from a long-term strategy. Longevity is part and parcel to why QUAD Model works: it’s a human-centric and forward-focused strategic planning tool that cultivates progress by reducing complexity. The QUAD is ingrained with the best qualities of strategic philosophies, methods, and systems, past and present.


One final note: perhaps it’s the case that successful strategic plans are also the most honest regarding intentions and goals, particularly when the intention is to edge out competition and the goal is victory; I think Sun Tzu would agree. Maybe these kinds of plans take into account that strategy isn’t just a process (reflection, decision, action, outcome; repeat) but problem-solving made into an Art form.

Heather Grant

About Heather Grant

SEO analyst, early bird, and subsequent coffee enthusiast. I'm also sorry for the things I say when I'm hungry.

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