What separates a great tactician from a great strategist?


“An army marches on its stomach.”
— Napoleon Bonaparte

“Amateurs study tactics. Professionals study logistics.”
— Omar Bradley

Erwin Rommel was a great tactician but a poor strategist.

During the invasion of France, his 7th Panzer Division was one of the most effective units in the field: he and Heinz Guderian were able to slip their army through a narrow gap in the Ardennes that had been left poorly defended by the Allies. They broke a bridgehead across the Meuse River at Sedan and then smashed into the French rear areas, encircling hundreds of thousands of Allied troops to the north, leading to the Dunkirk evacuation and the conquest of France and the Low Countries.

But he got lucky several times in a row to pull that off. Rommel moved so quickly that the “Ghost Division” outraced its own supply train and lost contact with headquarters, putting him beyond the reach of timely support in the event the French and British managed to rally. Had the Allied commanders been more on the ball, they could have easily cut him off and destroyed him. This same tendency to move too quickly is partly what ultimately led to the defeat of the Afrika Korps.

George Washington was a mediocre tactician, but a brilliant strategist.

George Washington fought around a dozen major battles in his military career, and lost half of them. He wasn’t a bad front-line battlefield commander (in his defense, he was almost always outnumbered), but he was far from the best even in his own time.

However, he excelled at seeing the larger strategic picture. Despite being outnumbered and out-supplied by his first French, then British opponents, he was a genius at maintaining the morale and cohesion of his army and conserving his own meager resources, as well as being very good at picking out which battles he actually needed to fight. He also understood the British Army very well, having fought alongside it during the French and Indian War. In this he epitomized Sun Tzu’s admonition that “If you know your enemy, and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles.”

Most importantly, he understood how to translate his bird’s eye strategic perspective down to ground-level tactics and vice versa. He knew he didn’t need to defeat the British Army in a straight fight. The British Army had to defeat him to win. All he had to do was not lose: to keep his army in one piece and make the retention of the colonies too costly to continue the war.

Goals vs Tactics with a16z’s Marc Andreessen at Disrupt SF

do you do that to a company yeah so a
lot of this is actually you can actually
borrow concepts actually from military
strategy on this which is sort of the
difference between sort of strategy and
tactics right at a difference between
goals and tactics so I think it’s
incredibly important to have a really
vivid clear idea about where you want to
get in the long run that you stick to
and that you’re very solid on and that
everybody agrees to and then I think you
want to be very very flexible in the
tactics and I think the problem is you
it’s a dichotomy right it’s a it’s a
contradiction so you have to you have to
think about terms you have to think it
from a long-term standpoint but also you
have to think in terms of day-to-day
tactics and this is where you know I’ve
been very critical in the past to this
idea of like fail fast because like I
always things like fail fast is like the
key word in there is not fast it’s fail
and failure sucks and success is awesome
and we should be trying to succeed not
fail and I think the fail fast thing is
people thinking because I think fail
fast makes a lot of sense on tactics if
the tactics Network doesn’t work find a
different tactic I think fail fast is
catastrophic if it’s applied to strategy
and if it’s applied to goals and I think
a lot of founders frankly even still
like talk themselves out of what are
going to be good ideas in the long run
because they’re not getting immediate
traction and so again it goes back to
long term like we just ruled by data and
what cited by their gut that’s actually
so that is actually a racing point so
that is one of the things that happens
which is in the old day in the old days
when I when I was running short pants
you just didn’t hat you didn’t have all
the data it was much harder to get a
sense of how well you were doing and so
like on the one hand you you you felt
less concrete connection to what you’re
doing but on the other hand you didn’t
have this cascade of data coming at you
and now is you know like in all of these
businesses today you have daily weekly
if you want you have data to the minute
to the second to the microsecond of how
well or poorly you’re doing and it’s
really easy to get distracted by that by
that short term data and it’s really
easy to draw a long term
Lucian’s based on short-term data and
you do see companies that have gotten in
real trouble over that mm-hmm
conversely you see companies you know
that worked for a very long time on
something that people think is just
completely nutty and they get heavily
criticized along the way and by the way
sometimes those work and sometimes they
don’t but when they do work that is how
you do something like for all this whole
thing about how everything’s supposed to
be speeding up it still takes a decade
or more to build something really
significant I mean it you know in this
world like it still really does so when
it comes to like interesting products
that seem to be sort of jerked around by
their own data or were for a long time