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In May of 1863 a nimble, creative, risk-taker with his back to the wall defied all logic by soundly beating a much larger and better supplied competitor. The setting was Chancellorsville, Virginia where the Union Army with 133,000 men under the leadership of Joseph Hooker faced the much smaller Confederate Army of 61,000 men, under the leadership of Robert E. Lee. Despite facing overwhelming odds and against all military rules of engagement Robert E. Lee sent Stonewall Jackson with 50,000 men around to the right flank of the Union Army. Hidden from view, the Union Army learned of this risky move as Jackson’s force attacked and completely annihilated the right half of the Union Army.

So, why is this important to business owners and leaders?  Well, the lessons learned from this dramatic moment in history are several fold:

  • Smaller forces are able to beat much larger competitors if they understand the weaknesses of those competitors.
  • Business owners must be willing to take risks when the opportunity to significantly out-perform competitors presents itself.
  • Owners of larger businesses must be continually watchful for new strategies and markets by their smaller competitors.

Understand the weakness of your competitors:  Business owners are typically found working IN their business instead of ON it. This more tactical focus results in their losing sight of their competitor’s weaknesses. If Robert E. Lee had focused his attention on tactical matters, such as the number of shoes his army needed, or the condition of their tents, he never would have recognized the strategic opportunity in front of him. The result would have been a victory by the overwhelmingly larger competitor. Spend time focused on your competitors, find their weaknesses, and exploit those weaknesses.

Leaders must be willing to take risks:  Easily said, but harder to successfully execute. People often don’t make decisions that involve risk for at least two reasons; 1) risk means reaching outside their comfort zone and that’s not something most people like to do , and 2) in the absence of metrics, their decisions are made on subjective feelings. To grow your business you must continually make decisions that stretch your comfort zone (get a coach to help stretch your comfort zone). Secondly, begin tracking key metrics. Numbers simplify decision making.

Owners of larger companies must be forever vigilant: The success a larger company has enjoyed can be reversed by competitors who recognize opportunities to take market share. As businesses become successful and achieve significant growth they often lose sight of their customers’ experience with the company. As the leader of a rapidly growing and/or large company never lose sight of your customers’ experience with your business.

As the owner of a smaller business, don’t limit your growth by thinking of your business as a powerless underdog. You have tremendous power to impact markets and to take market share, but your focus must be ON the business. You cannot afford to be doing the work of the business.

Jeff Lovejoy



One Comment

  1. April 1, 2015 at 1:30 am

    Great common sense here. Wish I’d thought of that.

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