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Mindset #3: Wartime vs. Peacetime

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Mindset #3: Wartime vs. Peacetime

In 2001, Ben Horowitz, of Andreessen Horowitz, wrote a great piece on the a16z blog. It’s called Peacetime CEO/Wartime CEO. Horowitz defined Peacetime situations as those where a company has a large advantage versus the competition in its core market, and its market is growing. The company can focus on expanding the market and reinforcing its strengths. Conversely, he says, in Wartime, a company is fending off an imminent existential threat. Horowitz goes on to describe how a Peacetime leader versus a Wartime leader might behave. Here is some of his perspective:

• Peacetime leaders know that proper protocol leads to winning. Wartime leaders violate protocol in order to win.

• Peacetime leaders focus on the big picture (strategy). Wartime leaders worry about a speck of dust if it interferes with the mission (execution).

• Peacetime leaders spend time shaping and supporting culture. Wartime leaders let the war define the culture.

• Peacetime leaders have contingency plans. Wartime leaders know you have to roll a hard six.

• Peacetime leaders leverage a big advantage. Wartime leaders are productively paranoid.

• Peacetime leaders aim to expand the market. Wartime leaders aim to win the market.

• Peacetime leaders train the team for career development and satisfaction. Wartime leaders train the team so they don’t get killed.

Having been both a leader in Wartime, in both Iraq and Afghanistan, and in the private sector, I deeply appreciate Horowitz’s contrast in mindsets. Particularly his Wartime mindset perspective. I agree with some of his points and disagree with others. In aggregate though, the contrast is insightful and thought provoking. Here are a couple of challenges and personal insights. For what it’s worth.

There’s no question there is a big difference between a Peacetime and Wartime mindset. I don’t agree entirely on how Horowitz suggests we operationalize the mindset. Particularly as a Wartime leader.

Peacetime leaders should be just as diligent and productively paranoid as Wartime leaders. In high risk, complex environments, “complacency kills.” Complacency does not discriminate and does not care if you’re in Peacetime or Wartime. It kills anytime, and every time. When available, take every legal, moral, and ethical tactical advantage you can get. As an example, the most dangerous phase of a special operations raid is on extract. The raid itself is dangerous but when departing the target is when people relax, get complacent, and get “killed.”

Horowitz says “Wartime leaders let the war define the culture.” War is nasty. So is life and business. If you let the war “define your culture”, you won’t recognize yourself by the end. Don’t ever let the war define your team’s culture. Have you ever seen Apocalypse Now? Colonel Kurtz let the war define the culture.

Horowitz says that Wartime leaders “know they have to roll a hard six.” You may feel as if you have to “roll a hard six,” but Wartime leaders actually operate with tons of contingency plans. Every great leader runs with contingency plans. You may not be able to roll that “hard six.” It’s a sexy way to present the “hard six” mindset but there are no guarantees in a firefight. Operate with contingency plans!

“Peacetime leaders train the team for career development and satisfaction. Wartime leaders train the team so they don’t get killed.” Wartime leaders actually do both! Train to stay alive, while also educating and developing the team.

The question with which Horowitz finishes the piece is, “can you be good at both?” Maybe, maybe not. Who knows? To be great at both would probably be more the exception than the rule but that’s just my knee-jerk intuition. Consider this older, more primitive structure of the Wartime/Peacetime contrast. Sebastian Junger, in Tribe, describes how the Iroquois Nation maintained parallel systems of government. In Peacetime, the nation was led by sachems, chosen by women and had complete authority over the civil affairs of the tribe until war broke out. In Wartime, the Wartime leaders ran operations. Their sole focus was the physical survival of the tribe. If during war, the enemy offered to negotiate peace, the sachems did the negotiating. The sachems also made the final peace negotiation decisions. Not the wartime leaders.

It’s worth considering what mindset you’re in and when?

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1 Comment

  1. Jill Brown
    May 1, 2018 at 1:36 am — Reply

    Coleman – great insights here and appreciate your insights into the difference in leadership. Reminds me of our time together earlier this year. Still working to make changes and focus on the key attributes to be successful.

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