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Style in strategy
Do you swing for the fences or prefer to play small ball?
We all have preferences, especially when it comes to strategy.
Right now it seems safe to suggest that Russian President Vladimir Putin is swinging for the fences these days. Many others wearing his shoes would be far less risk tolerant. Nearly none would have invaded Ukraine. But here we are.
While we're not all Eastern European dictators, we do all have our own set of preferences. In our personal lives they’re often shaped by and look like rules of thumb. And when you collect up enough rules of thumb, we find ourselves a sense of style.
“Style” is one of those terms that’s hard to pin down. But if I were to stab at one, it would be that our style is the sum of our selected preferences. I think it matters that we choose them and they aren't artifacts of life that are forced upon us.
However, even when we are forced into a particular way of doing or being, we still exercise some degree of choice. For example, the military expects me to get my hair cut a certain way. Yet I do retain some decision space to cut and comb it the way I like. Or maybe you're a student. Of course you’ll be required to write a paper, but you still retain some agency in deciding what specific subject to write about, or, failing that, you’ll always have the ability to decide how to answer the question.
Even though many aspects of life are put upon us, we still do, in fact, retain choice. And when you stack up all those little choices, you've got yourself a personal style.
It’s way beyond clothes. It’s not about garments and colors, though those do make up some of your style.
Style extends into other parts of life. Particularly the way you think about risk and the search for success in whatever it is that you do.
I find there are generally two different strategy styles to choose from. And they're not entirely mutually exclusive. Some prefer a style in a certain endeavor, but in the rest of life they lean in another direction. Others may switch off between the two, flitting back and forth like a wind-blown leaf.
Strategists either swing for the fences or like to play small ball, as Stephen Biddle once put it. Strategists typically prefer two paths, which Biddle described as “the difference between swinging for the fences and trying to get a home run but risking a strikeout, as opposed to someone who swings for contact, hits only singles but very rarely strikes out.”
So risk tolerance has a heavy shaping impact here.
Again, on one day you may feel lucky enough to swing for the fences, and another you may not. Or it may be an environment that makes you feel comfortable, that invites and even welcomes you, but you still, nonetheless, prefer to play small ball.
The interesting thing to me is how one person's strategic style impacts another. Someone's choices can encourage others to take risks. For example, Putin's war in Ukraine has driven others to take on greater risks and arguably swing for the geopolitical fences. Germany has recently announced a gargantuan increase in defense, well beyond normal German politics.
In the opposite direction, culture and leadership can dampen behavior deemed too risky for the organization. No swinging for any fences around here…and, just as we can learn to be lions, we can learn to be meek too.
It's important to know the distinction becuse it can help you know your bias, your lean, and ultimately, yourself.