February 28, 2013 at 6:59 am, by Carl

One of the key factors that has always separated the great generals from the merely good is their ability to see the larger picture.  That’s the difference between strategy and tactics, or at least one difference.  So often, many generals will get drawn into a specific battle as a certain spot on the field and then begin to pour everything into this one fight.  If you cannot see the larger picture, then you can do the same thing in your own life, usually missing key aspects that must be addressed in order to find success.


Perhaps the best example of this was the German decision to get drawn into the city of Stalingrad towards the end of 1942.  Now, to defend the Germany High Command a bit, by this point Hitler was really beginning to go “off the deep end” and was making more and more of the command decisions.  For all the man strengths (hey, like him or don’t like him—and there’s a lot not to like—the man has plenty of strengths), being a strategic military thinker wasn’t really one of them.  That fact had already come out during the last months of 1941 when he missed his chance to possibly win the war with the USSR.  He meddled and lost that moment.  Now, in 1942, he got sucked into a minor point and missed the larger picture strategically.


While Stalingrad was useful, had they taken it, such a position would have helped the German advance, there was no need to get drawn into that battle.  Before long, the Germans had thrown an entire army of about 500,000 men into the city.  When it was all over, about 100,000 were captured in a Russian trap, while the rest were dead.  For all intents and purposes, Germany’s chance of defeating the Russians was over.  If you want to read more about the German battle in 1942, check out this article (one of many).


For our purposes, the key is that the leadership lost sight of the bigger picture.  It is difficult for many to see the larger picture.  Often some issues are obscured from vision.  At other moments, the close immediate prize is so tantalizing, that you keep locked in, convincing yourself that you almost have it won.  At other times, your own arrogance and hubris blind you to clear obvious factors.


I see this often around me.  When a student chooses to withdraw from class, even though they are passing, simply because of one bad assessment, they are missing the larger picture of their aims.  They need the 3 credits, they are already passing and withdrawing simply means they’ve added more time to their journey of completion.


Or, I have some peers who simply cannot see the larger picture regarding academia that what we do, how we do it and our entire purpose is under threat.  So, instead of engaging in the deep question of how to address this, how to help non-academics understand our values, what we believe about our purpose….they chose to battle deeply about things like parking lot spaces, whether they can grab an extra $1800, or if they get to pick their own private textbook for students.  While each of those things, and a myriad of others, can have value or purpose, and may need some addressing, they are not the real battle we are engaged in.  The larger picture tells a very different story that could include an end game where many, or even all, professors lose their jobs because the entire industry as we now know it, dies and goes away.


Napoleon might have been the best General in history to possess this sense of vision.  Want to strengthen your ability, go study Napoleon’s military actions, particularly up to 1809.  And, Napoleon gives yet another tragic tale of someone failing to see the larger picture.  Much like Hitler, he became so obsessed with one target (destroying the Russian army and capturing Moscow), that he failed to see how this tactic was dooming what should have been the larger strategy (staying alive, holding onto power in France).


That is an error that you should avoid.  As Vizzini said to the Man in Black in the movie The Princess Bride, “You fell victim to one of the classic blunders – The most famous of which is “never get involved in a land war in Asia””   Or maybe he’d had done better to say “don’t lose sight of the larger picture.”