In Strategy: A History, Sir Lawrence Freedman, one of the world's leading authorities on war and international politics, captures the vast history of strategic thinking, in a consistently engaging and insightful account of how strategy came to pervade every aspect of our lives. The range of Freedman's narrative is extraordinary, moving from the surprisingly advanced strategy practiced in primate groups, to the opposing strategies of Achilles and Odysseus in The Iliad, the strategic advice of Sun Tzu and Machiavelli, the great military innovations of Baron Henri de Jomini and Carl von Clausewitz, the grounding of revolutionary strategy in class struggles by Marx, the insights into corporate strategy found in Peter Drucker and Alfred Sloan, and the contributions of the leading social scientists working on strategy today. The core issue at the heart of strategy, the author notes, is whether it is possible to manipulate and shape our environment rather than simply become the victim of forces beyond one's control. Time and again, Freedman demonstrates that the inherent unpredictability of this environment - subject to chance events, the efforts of opponents, the missteps of friends - provides strategy with its challenge and its drama. Armies or corporations or nations rarely move from one predictable state of affairs to another, but instead feel their way through a series of states, each one not quite what was anticipated, requiring a reappraisal of the original strategy, including its ultimate objective. Thus the picture of strategy that emerges in this book is one that is fluid and flexible, governed by the starting point, not the end point. A brilliant overview of the most prominent strategic theories in history, from David's use of deception against Goliath, to the modern use of game theory in economics, this masterful volume sums up a lifetime of reflection on strategy.
©2013 Lawrence Freedman (P)2014 Audible Inc.
Irrational, but True
If you're looking for a typical book on strategy, that will recount famous exemplars from military history or the business world and perhaps even distill them into "lessons" that are really no more than subjective and axiomatic mantras, aphorisms, and maxims... then this isn't the book for you. Try the 48 Laws of Power, the 33 Strategies of War, or any number of other books, many of them thoughtful in their own rights, if that's what you are in the mood for.
This book? Well, I can sum is up as a broad and sweeping analysis of the question: what is strategy? What do we really mean when we use words like "strategic"? Is strategy the same thing as planning or preparation? What is it that enables human beings to be strategic animals, both psychologically and neurologically? This book is the most fundamental exploration of strategy I've ever encountered.
Oh, there will be much discussion of military history, the business world, science, philosophy, and even religion, searching for the origins of strategic thought and conceptions of strategy as an idea. But this is all back drop providing material and context to fuel the wider history (and historiography) of strategy.
Ultimately, the author comes to the conclusion and primary thesis that strategy is fundamentally not science, nor art, but some flexible realm between... consisting not of hard formulas, prescriptions, or even theories, but of the idea of many possible futures and outcomes and variables, and a method of identifying key narratives of events as they unfold and selecting from various available scripts to tilt the probabilistic chain of events in one's favor. It is an idea that respects the art of strategy, without resorting to postmodern solipsism, and which acknowledges the importance of planning and hard data, without overemphasizing quantitative analysis or resorting to pseudo-scientific theories.
In the book's journey, you'll start with emergency of early homo-sapiens and the unique potential for abstract thought and imagination that defines our human capacity for strategy. You'll look through ancient warfare and mythology and religion for the emergence of the idea of achieving ends using rational means that rely upon the employment of guile and wit, as well as that notion's antithesis. You'll cover military history, the study and theory of modern military "science", as well as the practice of military art. You'll look closely at numerous historical conflicts, from Napoleon and the rise of key thinkers like Jomini and Clausewitz, through to Vietnam, Iraq, and 9/11, with countless thinkers in between. You'll cover social and military revolutions, the establishment of social science, sociology, and many philosophical currents and paradigms therein. You'll even cover neuroscience and behavioral psychology, not only what they tell us for devising strategies that must by their nature influence others, but what they tell us of how people strategize, and how people actually think and behave. You'll discuss economics and rational actor theory, just as you'll look closely at game theory and complex systems theory and their applications and implications for the strategic arts and sciences. From Odysseus and Sun Tzu, to Jon Von Neuman and Mearsheimer. It's a big book and a long journey, but richly rewarding!
This is a breathtaking work, hugely ambitious and rigorous in its methods. I'll admit there were a few parts, mostly those delving into Christian theology, where I thought the author was stretching quite far to find relevance, and where I was less interested and entertained, but I appreciate the author's attention to all dimensions and angles.
Quite frankly, if you have an interest in strategy: what it really is, what it really means, it's practice, it's practitioners, its theory and its history... you will find no better resource than this book. For fans and students of strategic studies, whether military history or business, this book will open your eyes to a much wider picture and a much broader understanding of what it is you're studying. It will challenge your common sense, all of the "lessons" you've ever learned, and your conceptions of strategy in the purest and most basic sense. This is destined to be the definitive analytical work on the subject for the foreseeable future!
Likes to listen while doing chores; likes to write reviews while he should be doing chores.
If you take nothing else from this review, understand this: this book is a history of theory. They are clear about this in the description, but it bears repetition, thus: A. History. Of. Theory. So the narrative goes from one strategic philosopher to another and as often as not discusses how the philosophy touched the world at large.
This book does not show how strategy is relevant to you. It also makes a weak case as to how the development of strategic theory was relevant to the history of the world. It is as if the artifact of strategy only barely touches the larger world. The author cannot be accused of overselling the relevance of his subject. Unfortunately, that makes it pretty hard to get interested.
There are two major items in this book's favor. One, that it keeps a refined focus on strategy and artfully keeps from being drawn down to the level of tactics, which would be an easily understandable digression. And two, the book has a good vision for the analysis the strategies of political movements, though sadly, it is there where it looses thematic focus.
In the end, I couldn't finish this book. It is an academic text unsuited to audiobook format. It also is written with that academic tendency of never using a fifteen word sentence where a fifty word sentence will do.
l'enfer c'est les autres
The author quotes John von Neumann (a developer of game theory among many other things) in the beginning of the book to the effect that the Game of Chess doesn't require a strategy because there is an exact mathematically correct move for every situation but for most other areas a correct strategy is not determinable. This book covers all those different areas in an encyclopedic fashion.
The book is a long read, but who among us can't devote thirty hours or more to such an interesting topic. The book is thematically arranged by area (war, politics, social sciences, business, and so on). He'll talk about the different strategies and almost always shows that they work until they don't.
The book illustrates how dangerous it is to just have intuition with a good narrative when developing a strategy while ignoring the empirical and reality. Reality is complex. Most of the time narratives will only get you so far.
Overall a long read, but worth it. There is a central narrative in the book, but sometimes the author didn't understand how to tie his stories together coherently.
On the one hand, Strategy is simply packed with uncommon information about historical thinkers who tried to grapple with how to achieve goals for large organizations in a richly complex world. Major caveat: it is only a worthwhile history at all after the year 1800. I was interested in the topic, and I was interested in the evolution of it all throughout. As I went, I judged that I had ample historical background (I am a history teacher and I read/listen to new works in history, anthropology, and political science on a daily basis) to contextualize the thinkers, wars, etc., but most of the actual content was new to me, which was pleasant. I returned a fairly unusual judgement that I will learn more by listening to this book again: I will strike on and sink in more insights, comparisons, criticisms, etc. if I read it again now that the groundwork for comprehending the new information itself is laid. Four or five times I was very excited for an epiphany like an important puzzle piece I had never known was missing, like a line of thought I underlying a historical decision or process I had thought I understood but now understood on other levels.For the above virtues, Strategy very much satisfies my qualification for a history worth reading. I will almost certainly listen to it again, notwithstanding the below criticisms I feel obliged to make. I am an easy grader and typically give books 5 stars if they get as far as I've described without a major issue.On the other hand, it only just gets its fourth Story and Overall stars by virtue of those insights I mention. It is difficult to say if the author is adding to his presentation of his sources or if he is just stringing one anecdote after another. Certainly his bibliography must be absolutely immense and esoteric, so I make some allowance. But I say I continually wondered if he would ever bring any of his information to anything like a point. I am not one to complain of One Damn Thing After Another for the benefit of my own enjoyments, but I know I can't recommend it as highly as I otherwise would because it certainly could wear on others. The book really is more of a set of chronologies, like a set of long relays passing on a torch of momentary overconfidence to each thinker's anecdote in turn.In fairness, some discussion of the lookout from the present state of play does take place in the very last hour of the book. Perhaps very aptly, the author draws a conclusion (to very roughly paraphrase) that the history of strategy shows drawing conclusion from histories has proven systematically problematic. Though if Strategy is supposed to reflect this, an expert must have had a better way to make the point and I am sure from his own discussions that our expert, the author, knows that one must come to recognize (preferrably with the help of the professional who has compiled it, in this case) what is unique and salient throughout a mass of complex information and conditions.I might still have waved and said the two balance out except for the first part of the book. I am not aware anyone involved in the publication warns about this, but the book's coverage before and after 1800 is badly imbalanced. I really think the author should have left the premodern literature out almost entirely and simply advertised he was writing a history of strategy since 1800. After 1800, the history is rigorous, thorough, and deserving of those merits I have attributed it. Before 1800 (not counting the prehistory, which was academically worthwhile to me, at least), we're reading a long essay on Force vs. Guile in selected premodern classics. To be fair with my earlier criticisms, this part of the book has a clear thesis. However, I do not know of an audience that will benefit from underlining strategic rudiments like this for the Odyssey and Paradise Lost (never mind any successions of major innovations martial or organizational endeavors in the actual historical sources of ancient, medieval, and early modern times under names other than "strategy") and also be ready to delve into the real work later. Again, had the book been advertised to cover from 1800, the addition of such chapters might have been a bonus; but if anyone else reads the synopsis as a broader history, it oversells.
This question is not appropriate.
My decision to purchase a book would not be influenced by Michael Butler Murray's participation either way. I did not take the impression that his narration added or took anything from the text.
I listened to it without pausing to listen to any other books. Certainly it was long enough I had no idea of listening to it in one sitting.
The reader may suspect and like to know, Strategy covers Western Europe+Russia and then the United States about exclusively. It sets down that it will so limit itself early in the text and does not sell itself as a world history, so fair enough. Sun-tzu comes into for his influence on Western thinking, but that reference should not mislead into expecting a more global work.
Super skeptic, reality poet, mega geek, & science nerd extraordinaire.
Definitely I would, the book doesn't just explore successful strategies, but concentrates on the failures, how they failed, and how they evolved. Freedman successfully sidesteps the "survivorship bias" by making how strategies fail a prominent feature of the book. Anyone who employs strategic thinking in their lives, work or otherwise, would benefit immensely from learning the history of what has already been tried, for better or worse, throughout recorded history.
The detailed account of the "wedge" strategy employed by proponents of the "Intelligent Design" movement to systematically undermine what they called "materialistic science", in order to remake science in an image consonant with their religious beliefs. I've read about intelligent design before, and I'm familiar with them, but gained a new perspective through the lens of political strategy, instead of debates & the debunking of pseudoscience.
His tone and range of inflection was good, keeping the long listen from turning into a sedative. I did notice him mispronouncing a number of the longer, more jargon type words, so don't always trust his pronunciation.
My favorite, perhaps most valued insight from this book (among many), was insight into how so many strategies have failed, following a common pattern of rigidity, bullheaded blindness to changes in the environment or refusing to revise a core principle, position or philosophy. From marxism to failed political campaigns and business strategies, this failure is so obvious once illuminated, yet remains common even today.
The use of recent advancements in cognitive neuroscience and psychology being applied to all fields of strategy, along with the values of the scientific method, was insightful, and very exciting.
This is a very articulate book summarize the growth of strategy over the course of a full millennia, from biblical times all the way to psychology and neuroscience today. It is a fantastic work in its comprehensiveness. One of the natural difficulties of a book like this is delving into the content deeply enough to really grasp the nuance of each character. Freedman was skilled at this. One fault is that the exploration of tangential topics requires of you an effort to maintain the connection back to strategy in your head, especially on audio.
Murray is a good reader with a natural credibility to his voice. I listen at 1.5x to listen at normal talking speed and at that page he sounds like a knowledgeable, likable friend.
I recommend this book. It is listenable and will expose you to the big players and their fundamental positions.
A couple of quick comments:
1. With a book this long, I recommend mapping out the primary characters and their positions afterwards to get a good grasp of the development and interplay and to help make sense of the vast amount of information.
2. The language is dense; for an audiobook this makes it tough to listen fluidly without rewinding on many occasions. I didn't find this to be too problematic however. I would keep in mind though that it might contribute to a listen 10% longer than the actual length of the audiobook.
This book presents a history of strategic thought from ancient history through the modern age. It is surprisingly insightful, and full of interesting stories from a variety of fields. It can however occasionally become a bit tedious in fleshing out those stories, and its repetition of key ideas.
"Needed a strong editor and a snappier reader"
I feel bad giving this work a modest rating. In many ways it is a great work of scholarship. I'm not an expert in this topic, but it certainly seems like a comprehensive review of strategic thought in an impressive range of disciplines. I learned plenty from its accounts of the various approaches adopted by communist revolutionaries, civil rights leaders and others.
Unfortunately this breadth comes at the cost of a lack of focus. An effective editor could have halved the length of the book and lost little of value. For every instructive exploration of different strategic debates there is a pointless detour into something irrelevant. Near the start of the book the author spends ages relating the biblical tale of the plagues God set on Egypt, despite himself acknowledging that a mythical scenario enacted in full by an omnipotent deity has no relevance to strategy. In the final section, just as he is supposed to be drawing out some overall lessons, the author mystifyingly recounts at length the full plot of the movie Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, without drawing any clear lesson from it.
The effect is that the book never really rises above a series of historical accounts, and the reader is left little wiser about the potential for cross-cutting approaches to strategy. The account ends with a somewhat limp conclusion that strategy is basically communication, and is therefore like drama. Maybe that is the best that can be done, but this reader was left wondering whether there was a clearer narrative buried under the movie reviews.
This was exacerbated by the reading of Michael Butler Murray. Mr. Murray has a pleasant enough voice but an odd intonation. Every second sentence is read with a kind of wistful languor as though his dog had died years ago and he is savoring the memory. The effect is soporific, making the convoluted writing harder going.
For the student of strategic thought there is more than enough interesting material here to make it worth slogging through the mournful reading and excessive length. But a stronger supporting editor and reader could have made Mr. Freedman's undoubted scholarship far more compelling.
"OMG. What a total waste of time..."
Having completed an MBA in strategy, I thought lets see what history has to say about it. It was a total waste of time. The author goes on about reciting things from bible and all sorts making it very boring. I lost the plot in many of the times. Talk about wars and strategy is sort of ok, however, I think any normal history book would have described events and the core strategies much nicer without having to use the word strategy. Absolute waste of time. I tried for listening to up to 12 chapters to see if it goes any better moving on, lost hope. Delete..
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