Monday, December 04, 2006

The Battle of Borodino, and when you don't get to pick your battles

Ever heard the advice of "picking your battles"? Well, read on.

The Napoleonic wars lasted over two decades and changed the world in ways that still affect our lives. Most people remember the Battle of Waterloo as the final defeat in Napoleon's otherwise remarkable military career. Fewer will recall the Battle of Borodino, vividly depicted in Leo Tolstoy's War and Peace.

Move past the gory body count and you are bound to find a profound lesson in life.

Napoleon's strategy focused on decisive clashes with opposing armies, invariably inflicting heavy losses that forced an immediate surrender. After the word of these flash victories spread through the continent, his numerous enemies soon resigned to French rule.

On 1812, the French army marched inexorably towards Moscow and victory was certain as soon as the Russian army stopped its retreat and faced its destiny. The rest of Europe waited apprehensively for the fall of Alexander's empire. The Russian commander, General Kutuzov, a very experienced general that enjoyed the population support but not the Czar's respect, ordered a stand near the village of Borodino. In agreement with the collective expectation of all watching nations, the French army won the single-day battle.

But in the words of Tolstoy, even as the battle raged on, Napoleon's rule over Europe effectively ended that day. The news of the Russian stand would soon spread across Europe and reach France. The fierce resistance inflicted grievous losses on Napoleon's army; it was clear that equal resistance on future offensives would grind his ability to win through intimidation.

The lesson in life? Faced with an insurmountable challenge or in a difficult position, you may not win, but a strong show of interest and dedication is never wasted. If the problem is important enough, others will pick up from where you left and face that same challenge from a better vantage point. Losing well when there is no chance of victory is also a victory.

Of course it is all a matter of principle and how important and dear the subject may be to you. After all, in a single day, more than 45.000 Russians didn't walk away from Borodino.

Contrary to what you may be thinking, a final stand does not have to be an act of self-destruction. Kutuzov's army was well prepared and he eventually ordered a retreat, leaving Moscow unprotected against the Czar's will. He wanted to preserve his army's strength while the impossibly long supply lines and the rigorous Russian winter made short work of Napoleon's army. At the end of the campaign, the French positions throughout the continent deteriorated rapidly and 3 years later Napoleon saw himself stranded on an island in the middle of the ocean.

Kutuzov's reputation never matched the notoriety achieved by Arthur Wellesley, the Duke of Wellington, who led the Spanish resistance and the final victory against Napoleon. Nevertheless, Kutuzov's stand was the beacon of hope for the coalitions that faced Napoleon in the three-year span that separated Borodino from Waterloo.

I do realize the dissonant tone of this lesson. We live in a business environment where signs of discord are forcibly repressed through coaching, mentoring, and performance evaluations. Many people would wish to have a nickel every time they were told to pick their battles. That is not my advice. In my experience, on most of the times, you don't get to pick your battles; they are brought to your doorstep by someone with a disagreeable agenda.

Whether it is a Cowboy Coder explaining why unit testing is not required, or a creationist architect avoiding a formal requirements management process, the battle has been picked for you.

When all alternatives are weighted, all the negotiations failed, and you are faced with the need to make a stand, make it count. Be prepared and don't be stupid, as someone once told me: "The real heroes come back to fight another day".

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