I loved the movie Gladiator because I could relate to the character Maximus. He was a loyal lieutenant, good at his job, influenced his team, and had a tight bond with his leader, Marcus Aurelius. And then Marcus's son killed him and forced Maximus to support him. When Maximus refused, the son killed his family and then left him to die.
It's a story about loyalty, betrayal, and in a way, business? Yes, business.
In business, we deal with power, loyalties, betrayals. We don’t kill people and their families, but the decisions managers and leadership make do impact a family's livelihood. And sometimes those decisions can have devastating impacts when former employees can’t find new work. These employees may be in a dying industry or coming from a company that’s so messed up people question their judgement for working there, or any number of factors.
A while back, I saw being in business as being similar to a soldier in the military. The business books I read, from Sun Tzu's Art of War to the 48 Laws of Power, often referenced military strategy, specifically Chinese military strategy (which is brilliant by the way). I related to Maximus because I experienced something similar in a work situation regarding loyalties and betrayals. I don't think it helped that I was often referred to as a “loyal lieutenant” by some managers in that company. Watching the movie again and again helped me resolve these mental and emotional conflicts.
War as metaphor
We don't realize how often we use war as a metaphor for business. There are ethical challenges of this, as well as the dangerous "play war" mentality that can result when such dangerous analogies are made. When we make such comparisons, in a way we are disrespecting the military. We are belittling what war is about and represents. Profits vs life and death. I think the soldiers have more difficult choices.
One of the adverse effects of this perspective in business - we consider our competition as adversaries and use this language to describe them, referencing ancient war to create strategies to dominate them and the industry. In some ways in business, we start to act as if markets were continents in a game of Risk. Yes, we look to not just dominate, but obliterate our competitors. It’s like business has assumed a different type of battlefield.
With these analogies, we are trained to see business through war-like eyes, but is business really a type of battlefield? Or is it a way for people to connect, build relationships, have conversations, and achieve something greater than themselves?
This is artwork from The Dallas Entrepreneur Center, on the second floor in one of the conference rooms. It's one of my favorite pieces that they have from this artist.
Businesspeople often have difficulties with collaboration yet not with competition. Doesn’t that seem odd and counterintuitive? Then again, we are trained to annihilate the competition like a general would an adversary on the battlefield. What I think we forget in business is that without competition, we wouldn’t have a problem to solve, a product to create and improve, or be part of an industry. Competition allows our business space to exist. Competition then makes us better. It helps us see how we are unique compare to others.
When it comes to customers, the war-like analogies often continue. Customers are seen as pawns to be won for increased market share. They aren't people with problems who need help; they are bottom line numbers counting towards success. When marketers are confused because customers have no loyalty, I often chuckle to myself. Usually these culprits don't have relationships with their customers. I want to ask these marketers:
- Did your company see them as anything other than a bottom line figure?
- Were they people with problems and needs, looking for solutions and a better life?
- Do you know who your customers are? Do you even like them?
Business should be moving towards collaboration, but the militaristic tone stands in the way of this transition and mental shift. The "play war" mentality in business may win markets, but it doesn't win customers. We can never forget that in the end, customers are people - their hearts are won through relationships, not a successful battle.