The 100th Soldier, or What is Winning?

We all like to win. Win a tournament, baseball game, or crib game with our grandfather. But have you ever considered what winning is?

I remember placing second in a karate tournament. Feeling pretty good about it, I had a satisfied smile. Sensei Akutagawa looked at me and said, “You’re still dead. If you were on the battlefield and killed ninety-nine enemy soldiers and the last one kills you, you are still just as dead as if the first one had killed you.”

Until then, I viewed a tournament just as a series of separate tactical engagements. If I was successful in each engagement they would accumulate to winning the tournament. I never considered anything beyond each engagement. In this tournament I lost to the “100th soldier.”

Something Bigger

Sensei’s words sparked another line of thinking in me. There is a bigger picture here. One that I really never considered before. What did I accomplish in the tournament? And if I was on the battlefield what would I accomplish by killing ninety-nine enemy soldiers before expiring myself?

As I thought about this, I realized that there was a conceptual approach that linked the series of tactical engagements (each match) to the strategic goal of winning the tournament. Each opponent had to be treated differently tactically based on what they tended to do. Watching other competitors in their matches helped formulate tactical approaches when it was my turn to meet them. Some matches were more important than others. Sometimes where you were placed in the draw made a difference. As my competitive career gained more depth, I learned that if you could, you won as quickly as possible because the less time you spent getting banged up by each engagement the more capability you had later in the final matches when it mattered.

In team matches, sometimes gaining a draw against a stronger competitor by fighting a defensive engagement helped your team win the overall match. Tactically you weren’t going for the win, you were defensive and maintaining the initiative for your team, while strategically your team was offensive and going for the win. In this case, holding the stronger competitor from winning (Victory Denial) keeps the opposing team from getting ahead where they want to against a weaker opponent.

I saw strong competitors get so lost in winning the tactical engagement that they were disqualified for excessive contact. A solid tactical win against the opponent, but a complete failure in the the tournament. They failed to link tactical action with strategic success.

Then I asked myself “Is it possible to lose and still win?” (I’ll answer this question at the end of the article.)

In Strategic terms the link between the tactical level and strategic level is call the operational level. The operational level is where you take tactical objectives and outcomes and weave them toward your strategic goal.

Defining Success

Winning all boils down to what you decide success is, and equally importantly what level you look at it from. Tactical, operational, and strategic levels act a markers to decide what success is:

  • Strategic Level –  What is your overall goal—your vision of the desired future?
    Operational Level – What are the major sub-goals that directly support your Strategic goal? And how can you combine tactical outcomes to support the strategic goal?
    Tactical Level – How do you combine technique to achieve a positive tactical outcome that supports operational goals?

Goals are relative. Goals can be different between individuals. Your opponent might want to kill you, and you just want to survive, escape, avoid, or control him (such as a police officer making and arrest). You might want to kill him also, but you might also want to make him an ally, friend, or communicate a misunderstanding. Victory denial, stopping your opponent from achieving some goal, may be considered a win (as our example above shows).

To the coach with a bunch of young competitors, winning means that everyone had a learning experience and 16 medals came back to the dojo. To an individual elite athlete, winning means a chance to compete at a higher level.

Winning doesn’t even have to mean a physical confrontation. Deterrence is a form of victory denial. Deterrence is about behavior modification by credible consequence. It is a concept that just by offering the potential of combat makes the opponent think twice about trying to achieve his goal. It says that if you proceed, the cost of doing so is going to severely outweigh the benefits accrued. The “consequence” threat. If you stay out past your curfew, then I will not be taking you to your hockey game on Saturday (too bad you are in the playoffs).

Deterrence can be an accumulation of little things that reduce risk for you while increasing the risk of failure to the opponent. Moving to a more lighted area, or areas with more people, and travelling in groups are ways of reducing your risk while increasing failure risk for a potential attacker.

Victory Denial and Deterrence are just two of a number of strategic concepts that can shape our concept of winning, and they can be used at any level of strategy. We can conclude that winning can mean different things.

Winning on One Level Doesn’t Necessarily Mean Winning on Another

Winning at the tactical level doesn’t necessarily mean winning at the operational or strategic level.  For example, you have two assailants that are about to attack your wife and daughter. Your main (strategic) goal is to prevent them from being attacked. So, you wade in and engage the first assailant and you thrash him—a decisive tactical victory. However, assailant #2 assaulted your wife while you were engaged with assailant #1—a strategic loss. Because you were focused on the tactical aspect of the engagement you missed the potential of operational approaches to success such as diversion, trading space for time so they could escape, protecting a choke point where the assailants have to come at you one at a time in sequence, etc.

Countries can win wars, but loose stability and peace because of it. Winning at the tactical level does not mean similar strategic results. What necessarily follows is the understanding that winning individual battles that don’t support strategic goals are meaningless. Getting disqualified in a tournament even though you are tactically superior to your opponent does not support winning the tournament. This teaches us that we should understand what our goal is carefully and then determine and consider the approaches we will or can take to realize that goal. This provides us with a useful tool to assess and re-evaluate our strategy as it unfolds.

Using This Understanding Anywhere

There are countless areas in your life that you can use these concepts.

Jim is a salesman and has been working hard to land a contract with Company Z. He keeps cutting the price of the contract until Company Z decides the offer is too good to pass up. Jim is ecstatic about finally landing the contract. He has won a decisive tactical victory over his competitor who had been supplying Company Z for the last five years.

Jim’s manager however, after going through the implications of the big order from a supply point of view, comes to the conclusion that they will not to be able to deliver the goods at the required time. In addition, their supplier just increased prices for materials by 22% and they are going to loose money on the contract because Jim has low-balled the contract to get it.

Jim’s manager is looking at an operational loss. At the strategic level, if Jim’s company is late with delivery, it means that company Z is going to have problems and possibly decide never to use Jim’s company for any business in the future. This is a strategic loss for repeat business.

  • For Jim it is a tactical win
  • For Jim’s manager it is an operational loss
  • And for Jim’s Company it is a strategic loss

A tactical win is relatively easy to assess because the assessment is based on outcomes. You beat up an attacker, Jim gets the contract, a platoon leader defeats the machine gun and takes control of the area, a submarine captain sinks a destroyer. All of these are fairly straightforward objectives that are easy to measure. But what is the result to your overall goal?

Operational success is similar and sometimes a little harder to assess because it relies on a number of tactical outcomes. You use the concept a combination of deterrence by threatening to take the computer away and placing the garbage bag in the middle of his bedroom to make sure your teenage son takes out the garbage.

But the strategic goal is what matters. Sinking the wrong destroyer, or the right one at the wrong time may affect negotiations at the strategic level. Putting the garbage in your son’s bedroom may create backlash if your overall goals is to teach him responsibility.

In simple cases, the tactical objective, operational goal and strategic end can all be the same thing. Let’s use the example of surviving an assault in a back alley.

If my strategic goal is to survive the assault, then killing my opponent in a tactical engagement satisfies my strategic goal, but so does running away, imobilizing my opponent by breaking a leg, or using a stun gun. Tactically I can use any of these approaches if they are available to me. Operationally, I may be limited based on legal requirements in terms of appropriatness (he only wants my sandwhich, but I kill him – might be viewed by society as a bad approach that requires sanction) and pre-emption (I kill him immediately before he has time to pull his knife – You might be viewed as the attacker). In all the the examples, you survive, but some ways will have more strategic consequences than others.

Military history full of examples where the cost of a tactical victory directly caused strategic defeat. If you use all your resources to achieve a tactical victory, you have nothing left for the next battle. So, if I single handedly defeat 99 enemy soldiers by fighting a tactically defensive battle and die by the hand of the 100th soldier, but have depleated the enemy ranks so than my side can now switch to the strategic offense, I have contributed to a strategic victory.

Components of Winning

Decisiveness (Is the issue resolved?) Decisivness relates to the effect your strategy has on your circumstance. Decisiveness ranges along a spectrum of outcomes that range from having no effect to an effect that completely resolves the issue. It can also range negatively to worsened conditions and achieving exactly opposite of your goal.

Achievement (Did we achieve the desired end?) Achievement relates to how well you execute your strategy. Do tactical objectives and outcomes support operational goals, and do operational goals and outcomes support your strategic end. Achievement is another spectrum ranging from failure to achieving nothing to being completely successful. The achievement scale is by far the primary scale in tactical and operational assessments of victory and is often confused with success.

Permanence (How long do you win for?) Our success can be transitory or permanent. The effects of a tactical victory may only last minutes to hours. As an example the enemy may regroup and counterattack. The snipe at your wife may mean only a fleeting victory that changes the strategic environment toward a negative achievement in relation to a healthy relationship. A strategic victory must have some permanence. Success (realizing your goal) needs to have a longer-term.

You can assess winning at any level of strategy by achievement, decisiveness and permanence. And above all, a tactical victory must support an operational goal and an operational victory must support a strategic end.

Is it Possible to Lose and Still Win?

Of course it is. Failure is the other side of success; part of the duality of Kyo-Jitsu (Yin-Yang in Budo speak). I remember my sister telling me this.

The secret to success is easy to express;
You just fail, and fail, and fail again;
But less, and less, and less.

And that is why I still practice punching and cutting. In the dojo I can make mistakes galore and through the interations of failure I learn to be more successful. The dojo is the place to make mistakes–and correct them. In circumstances outside the Dojo with high consequence (no ability for correcting mistakes) you want to meet the 100th soldier with a clear understanding of what you are doing and why, because it may open tactical, and operational approaches that you never considered before.

by Rick Rowell