Business Is Not War. Let’s Stop Talking Like It Is.


Jonathan Larson

We compare business to war so often, we hardly notice. “Battlefield promotion.” “Let’s go on a retreat.” “More wood behind fewer arrows.” “Captains of industry.” “Alliances.” Even the origin of the word “company” is military. People read The Art of War and think about the insurance company division they manage as if it’s the same as sending armies off to die.

It’s tempting to compare work to war. It takes our daily toil and elevates the stakes, makes us feel that victory is glorious, our work matters. Seeing others as enemies may unite us. Hearts speed, adrenaline flows.

Problem is, it’s nonsense. War, a perhaps-necessary evil that we should want to avoid at almost any cost, is entirely different from business, which at its best is about birthing new betterments to us all. When your business fails, nobody dies or is enslaved. The “sides” in business are, mostly, arbitrary. If it is like war at all, business is more like color war at camp than war war.

Steve Ballmer

This metaphor justifies so much awful behavior. What’s a little environmental harm done by your company while building your product — if we’re at war. What’s a person screamed at, dehumanized to get the job done — if we’re at war. Why bring your feelings, your personal dreams and hopes to the office, you’re just a soldier — if we’re at war. What’s another night of that blank look on your face while your kids want your attention — if we’re at war. What’s looking at your competitor as an enemy — if we’re at war. What’s a broken promise or principle — if we’re at war.

There might be some situations where business is actually a win-lose battle . More often it seems that we never know when our competitors might be our best partners, when we can invent win-win solutions, when there is more to be made by understanding one another than by fighting — by growing the market than dueling over it.

Maybe, as industries mature, companies by nature fight over fixed pies — another reason I love startups. They’re more about making than taking.

War is also inherently male, at least as far as history goes. Combatants were macho guys swinging swords and firing cannons. Creation is something that has always involved both genders.

Does it do any good to see business as war? Does it make us more productive, spur us? Maybe, who knows. Sometimes I think it’s a trick to convince us to act. There is, of course, truth in the metaphor. The danger is that we may begin to live by it. And at what cost?

There are many better metaphors. Business as science. Business as art (one Steve Jobs used often). Business as love. Business as farming (planting seeds, cash cows and all). Business as a game. Business as raising children. Even business as struggle — sometimes business is hard, brutally hard. That’s still different from war.

Others have noticed the same pattern.

So what can we do about it? I’m going to start by noticing when I see or contribute to the pattern. Business, at its best, is creation — and war, always, is destruction. They are opposites, and if we want industry to be a positive force in our personal lives, environment, society, and future, we should divorce our language about business from the tragic (if sometimes necessary) conflicts that bring devastation. There are so many good businesses; but it is hard to find a good war.

Thank you to Sara, joe, Vincent, John, and the Bloomberg Beta team for helping develop and inspire this line of thinking.

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