The book “100 Decisive Battles from Ancient Times to Present” by Paul Davis ( provides a superb selection of data points to examine the impact of Leadership and Management in the most history-shaping world events.  From the Battle of Megiddo (1479 BC) through to Desert Storm (1990), the book chronicles the historical setting, the battle and the results in a concise fashion.

The selection of the ‘100 Decisive Battles’ is neither random nor specifically selected for leadership/management attributes, but by dint of being such prominent moments in time, the selections are most likely to represent to the pinnacle leadership in action.  In short, they were engagements that ‘really mattered’ and in most cases the highest stakes on the line.  Therefore, the leadership was highly motivated and in most cases well resourced and so a key determinant would be the executive decisions prosecuting the battle itself.  These qualities are not always present in the battlefields especially as some results can be more influenced by broader strategic decisions to retreat or withdraw due to the larger context of the overall ‘war.’  But those instances selected here are most often at such key turning points of the overall conflicts that the results really need to be more explained by the skill of execution than the overall motivation.

When I first started reading the book, I thought I would keep track of what I interpreted was the executive mode most central the end result, ie.  Leadership or Management.  That is, was the result driven by a leader focused on the upside opportunity or by one who managed the downside risks and exposures more effectively. 

Another dimension was apparent with the roles of ‘Attacker’ and ‘Defender.’  While business most typically has competition, an enterprise does not necessarily require such a direct adversary so this aspect added a prominent dimension to the analysis.  At first, one would think that successful ‘Attackers’ would demonstrate more ‘Leader’ skills (going for the upside) and successful ‘Defenders’ would demonstrate more ‘Manager’ (averting the downside) skills and this indeed was one of the hypotheses that I wanted to test.  Secondly, I observed that it was not necessarily superior capabilities in Leadership or Management that spelled the difference, but many times the result was more driven by inferior  (ie.  sub-par) capabilities in one of these two modes.

One key disclaimer…the accounts of these events is cursory at best and my second-hand insight into them that much less in depth.  For starters, I only really looked at the events surrounding the battles themselves and not the larger industrial, economic, political or other historical contexts that have general impact on these very specific events.  These major world events typically had dozens of variables affecting the final outcome.  Winnowing down such a complex event to such a polar categorisation is simplistic at best.  Nonetheless, some of what the methodology loses in depth, might gain in breadth with one hundred significant data points at hand.  The intention is not to be conclusive about any individual assessment nor to be exacting in the balance of accounting, but simply to explore patterns and other commonalities in this context.

Examples of these different outcomes include…

·         Attacker Prevails through Strong Leadership:  Trenton (1776) – At a point where the American “revolutionary army was in desperate straits”, George Washington’s surprise attack crossing the ‘ice-filled Delaware” the day after Christmas caught the Hessian garrison so much off-guard that the ensuing battle lasted a mere 15 minutes.  This attack set up another successful surprise rear attack the following week also in Trenton on the British general Lord Charles Cornwalis.                                                             

·         Attacker Prevails through Strong Management:  Huai Hai Suchow  (1949) – Communist victories over Chinese Nationalist force led by Chiang Kai-shek were the result of enlightened occupation through the military campaign:  “The peaceful nature of the Communistic takeover of cities, with very little retribution, had the same effect on the population that similar strategies have done through the ages:  Cyrus the Great of Persia, Alexander the Great of Macedonia, and Ghengis Khan all were magnanimous to cities that did not resist, thus encouraging the others.”

·         Attacker Prevails through Weak Leadership (of the opposition):  Antietam (Sharpsburg 1862) – While effectively a draw and each side with their own failings and accomplishments, ‘100 Decisive Battles’ describes crux of lacking leadership by Union Major General George McClellan:  “McClellan lost the battle.  He had too many opportunities to smash Lee and failed to use them.  Waiting too long to launch his attack, pushing his men into the battle piecemeal and completely without coordination, and then failing to commit any reserves whenever any advantage presented itself.”

·         Attacker Prevails through Weak Management:  Pavia (774) – Lombard ruler and commander Desiderius provoked attack from Charlemagne through weak diplomacy, over-extended his territory and then ultimately succumbed to a siege into which he retreated yet for which he was ill-prepared

·         Defender Prevails through Strong Leadership:  Syracuse (413 BC) – Theban King Epaminodas broke the power of Sparta and two-to-one superiority in numbers by innovating with a bold new manoeuvre which concentrated his force on one flank, called “refusing one’s flank”.

·         Defender Prevails through Strong Management:  Sedan (1870) Prussian Field Marshall Helmuth von Moltke prevails over Napolean supported by a strong ‘General Staff’ management function that focused as much on the operations and logistics of warefare (eg.  exploiting railways strategically) as actual fighting.  As ‘100 Decisive Battles’ describes, “the wars of the future would be fought not just by soldiers, but by planners and managers.’

·         Defender Prevails through Weak Leadership:  Midway (1942) – In what could have turned the course of the Pacific theatre in World War II, the US thwarted a massive Japanese attack on Midway island which would have positioned Japan to take Hawaii and put the US in a position to consider suing for peace.  Despite being the attacker, the Japanese commander Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto held back the full capability of his strike force committing only half of his aircraft to the initial raid.  Subsequently, he deliberated as to whether to focus his attack on Midway Island itself or the US ships around it which slowed his response and left ordinance exposed on his aircraft carriers pivotal to their being sunk and the Japanese navy irreparably crippled.

·         Defender Prevails through Weak Management:  Moscow (1941) Hitler’s famous repeat of Napolean’s similar mistake attacking Russia aggressively and swiftly, but being ill-prepared to manage the logistics of an extended front in a hostile environment.  Hitler got side-tracked by objectives without material strategic benefits (ie.  Leningrad and Stalingrad), dealt poorly with the local population by ordering many “shot or hauled back to Germany as slave labor” forcing him to expending excessive resources guarding his rear supply line from underground resistance (contrast Huai Hai Suchow), and notoriously under-equipped his army by not providing winter uniforms or equipment so confident was he that victory would be in hand by autumn.

·         Neither / External:  Hakata Bay (1281) – Despite overwhelming advantage and force and strong execution, the attacking Mongol fleet was destroyed by a storm in the Tsushima Straits saving Japan


Determining Factor

Attacker Prevails

Defender Prevails

Strong Leadership



Strong Management



Weak Leadership



Weak Management



Neither / External



Leadership in Attack one of the most prominent determinants driving the result in 32 of the 100 battles.  Despite the promience of ‘Leadership’, Management was pivotal in 52 of the 100 battles.  Management helped an attacker in execution (strong management, attacker prevails), a defender avert the downside of conquest (strong management, defender prevails), as well as a defender surviving because of management oversights by the attacker (weak management, defender prevails).  Furthermore, strong execution in either Leadership or Management was more often decisive than weaknesses.  One would expect if these are the pre-eminent competitions in the world at their time, then the competency levels would be quite strong.