Featuring an Interview with Al and Laura Ries, authors of WAR IN THE BOARDROOM: Why Left-Brain Management and Right-Brain Marketing Don’t See Eye-to-Eye – and What to Do About It.
There’s a war going on in American business. It’s a war that needlessly inflicts serious economic harm on customers, employees, companies and stakeholders.
It’s a war that causes great ideas and products to vanish. To get lost in the clear fog of logical logic. A devastatingly destructive war that helps bad ideas take root and grow (albeit briefly), nurtured and justified by common sense and … logical logic.
LEFT-BRAIN MANAGEMENT vs. RIGHT-BRAIN MARKETING
What does that mean? How does it work? What to do about it? Find out in this interview with bestselling authors Al and Laura Ries.
BUT FIRST …
The markets being the shape they’re in – no jobs, no money, no hope, economic despair, destruction and disheartenment all around, I thought it’d be the perfect time to start a new company.
So I did. It’s called “Kayser’s No-New Media.” I specialize in old media – none of that highfalutin New Media Web 2.0 vaporware. My differentiator? I go back through time, find and revive great ideas from the past that have gone bad, mostly because they were ahead of their time, or were poorly executed.
See, I understand the left-brainer vs. right-brainer war mentality. I’m above all that Byzantine internecine strife. In fact I’m going to profit handsomely from it because I’m a “Know-Brainer.” I use both sides of my brain, that’s why the new business is booming. Well … at least my one ( beta account – no money has actually exchanged hands yet) account is.
My first job is for an auto manufacturer. Yes I know, not the best time to be dealing with the auto industry. But my client is getting mega bucks in new investment (from taxpayers) … what an opportunity! And this auto dealer has total faith in my new approach. We’re getting ready to rock the Auto World. There is only one catch. They asked that I run my ideas and marketing concept by some world-class Marketing & PR strategists. “No problemo,” (Sometimes I speak German to impress new clients) said I. “Piece of cake.”
I’m going to trust the reader not to leak the top secret details of the project below – or crib the idea. Here’s the concept.
We’re bringing back the Edsel.
Sure it was a colossal flop. Worst car of all-time. But that was only because it was way ahead of its time. It was a DaVinci-like beauty.
And the name – Edselzilla?
Car sales are all about the name. Has to be something that rolls off the tongue. Has to be memorable. Meaningful.
I crafted a crafty neologism from the words “Zilla” and “Illa,” and came up with the name, which also has a scintillating etymological iconic meaning … and could it roll off the tongue any easier?
FULL OF HIGH-TECH PRODUCTS
I made sure the engineers loaded the Edselzilla with incredibly complex and sophisticated products that most people will never use. Products like seats that vibrate and shake to the music – different beats – different shakes, depending on the music. Slick, huh? And, taking advantage of the latest in nanotechnology advancements, the Edselzilla computer sensors monitor the mood of the driver (based upon complex gluteus-maximus seat vibration algorithmic calculations) and displays it for all to see. Can you imagine? A blue-green car means a peaceful driver. A red car … road-rage candidate.
And reliability? We rock. What’s one of the biggest value props for a car? Reliability. The Edselzilla prototype’s been road-tested for a year. It’s better than anything on the market. Tops the Lexus and the Mercedes even.
LOW-END OF THE HIGH-END, HIGH-END OF THE LOW-END
Price Point? A mere $150,000.
We’re going to own the low-end of the high-end, the high-end of the low-end and the almost-highest end of the ultimate high-end. How? We’re going wide. On the drawing boards we have a product line wider than the Grand Canyon. Proof?
Nedselzill: This is sorta niche’ey. For all the guys named Ned Line. Probably not a big-seller at first.
Pedselzilla: The Environmentalist/Green Crowd Line- Equipped with pedals.
Qedselzilla: For the up and coming Quantum Physicist Line
Redselzilla: The only car for People with Red Hair Line
TEDselzilla: The Ted Nugent Fan Line. Comes with a zebra-skinned, M-60 machine-gun attachment on the hood, wood-burning grill on the dash (can cook up to 30 lbs of wild game – cookbook included). Coolest feature? The TEDselzilla’s doors flip up and turn into concert venue-sized speakers. Personally, this is the one I’m buying when it comes out – before Ted Nugent captures the Presidency in 2012.
Weaselzilla: For Politicians Who Raise Taxes on Everyone but Themselves Line -This one will be huge.
We’ll own the market.
Now … for the coup de grâce . A “slam dunk” as a CIA chief once said. I personally negotiated a distribution deal with one of the largest retail chains in the world. Exposure will be incredible. Edselzillas will soon rule the world. Guess who the distributor is?
The largest retailer in the world! The biggest audience. Take your breath away? I knew it would … that’s about it. Wait until Al and Laura hear about this. They’ll probably want to invest.
ENTER: AL & LAURA
Al Ries and Laura Ries are the dynamic father and daughter duo that have reshaped branding in the 21st century. The Fall of Advertising & the Rise of PR ruffled more than a few feathers and changed the way we look at advertising forever.
Al and Laura Ries have been profiled in The Wall Street Journal, Advertising Age, Business Week, and USA Today.
Laura is a frequent media commentator appearing on Fox News, CNN, CNBC, Fox Business, ABC News, CBS, PBS and Bloomberg.
WIN THE BOOK: For keeping the secret I disclosed above – the first 20 people that send me an e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org with “TEDZILLA” in the subject line will win an autographed copy of Al & Laura’s new book.
FINALLY – THE INTERVIEW BEGINS
Steve: Thank you for taking the time to speak with me. I have a few questions about “WAR IN THE BOARDROOM,” and then want to run a real-world business branding concept by you. First … why did you write this book? What prompted it?
Al Ries (Al): 40 years of frustration. Marketing and Management are at war. In our years of consulting work, we have participated in many battles over marketing strategies and tactics. On many occasions, we have lost those battles and have the scars to prove it. The reason for the war is that marketing and management don’t understand each other. The reason they don’t understand each other is that their brains are different.
Laura Ries (Laura): Management people tend to be left brain thinkers. Left-brainers are verbal, logical and analytical. Marketing people tend to be right brain thinkers. Right-brainers are visual, intuitive and holistic. Our goal with this book is to help establish better communications between marketing people and management people. Better communications leads to better branding.
Steve: Examples of left-brainers?
Al: If you’re the CEO of a major corporation, chances are good you are a left-brainer. Management people tend to be logical, analytical thinkers. In order to make decisions, they want to be supported by facts, figures, market data, and consumer research.
Laura: Directors of Marketing. If you’re in marketing, chances are good you are a right-brainer. Marketing people tend to be intuitive, holistic thinkers. They often make decisions by “gut instinct” with little or no supporting evidence.
Steve: What about “Know-Brainers” (like me) that use both sides off the brain equally?
Al: We call that “Ambibrainerity.” It’s similar to ambidexterity. Most people who are thought to be ambidextrous (switch hitters in baseball, for example) are really left-handers who, with a great deal of practice, have taught themselves right-handed skills. Or vice versa.
Laura: Ambibrainerity is extremely rare. While you can learn to exercise the less-favored half of your brain, working both sides equally is almost impossible. Depending on how you were born, you are going to have to live your life either as a left-brainer or a right-brainer. Every occupation seems to attract people who favor one side of their brain or the other. It might take logical, analytical thinking to run a corporation, but it also takes intuitive, holistic thinking to run the marketing program for that same corporation.
Steve: Is there a common theme or thread that runs through these left-brain vs. right-brain wars?
Al: Yes. There’s usually a common theme to the lost battles. Management argues for ideas and concepts that are just plain “common sense,” a reflection of their left-brain thinking.
MARKETING=INTUITIVE. NOT LOGICAL
Laura: We argue for ideas and concepts that might not be logical, but intuitively we believe are ideas that will work, a reflection of our right-brain thinking.
Steve: I’m going to ask a dumb question …
Al: Who decides in these wars? The deck is stacked. Every marketing decision has to be approved by management. Guess who loses? Of course marketing loses. But more importantly, the two sides are engaged in a war that undermines companies, careers, brands, stockholders and consumers alike.
Steve: Okay … How about a real-world example of an idea battle that management won that marketing would never have thought of? Maybe something from the auto industry – since it’s a hot topic right now. (I’m prepping them for my pitch here. Subtle … isn’t it?)
THE REALITY OF PERCEPTIONS
Al: Okay. Let’s talk about the Volkswagen Phaeton. It’s a high-end luxury car, priced at $100,255, and received glowing reviews from Forbes and USA Today. Business 2.0. hailed it as, “Overwhelmingly the best value among high-end luxury cars.” Remember this. Left-brain management types deal in reality. Facts, figures, charts and numbers. Management acknowledges the importance of perception, but believes that perception is just a reflection of reality.
They think if you change the reality, you change the perception.
The reality was that the low-end car sales were being taken over by Japan and Korea. Chinese brands were poised to enter the US market. Logic dictated that Volkswagen needed to move upstream – up market, to the more profitable high-end luxury cars. It’s completely logical. Common sense. And completely wrong.
THE PERCEPTION OF REALITY
Laura: Right-brain marketing types deal in the reality of perception. What matters to marketing people are not the “facts” of a situation but what’s in the mind of the consumer, which may or may not correspond with reality. What’s in the mind of a “Volkswagen” consumer? Do you think buying a $100,000 car is?
Changing reality is easy; changing perceptions is exceedingly difficult.
Steve: And what happened?
Al: What do you think?
Steve: Well, I’ve never really heard of the Phaeton. But … it’s a Volkswagen.
Al: Exactly. It’s a Volkswagen. Not a BMW. Not a Lexus. The company couldn’t give them away. The Volkswagen Phaeton was introduced in November 2003. Since then, only 3,354 units have been sold in the United States.
Laura: Perception won out.
Steve: But what if it was the best product on the market? The absolute slickest-sweetest-superior and most reliable? Like a Mercedes. Loaded with high-tech features, bells and whistles that would awe a NASA astronaut? Wouldn’t that make a difference? Save the day?
Al: That’s your left-brain coming out. Management believes that nothing matters except the product. Building a better product is the objective of most chief executives. Wrong. Now let’s talk about “reliability.” Where do you think Mercedes Benz finished in an “Automotive Brand Reliability” survey by Consumer Reports … out of the Top 35 Brand names?
Steve: 1st or 2nd?
36TH OUT OF TOP 35!
Laura: Meredes ranked 36th in the 2007 Consumer Reports “Predicted Reliability” customer survey. Right-brainers know you don’t win with a better product. You win with a better brand.
GOING DEEP AND WIDE
Steve: What if they would have had a deep and wide product line? Be all things to all people? Wouldn’t that have turned the tide in their favor?
Al: That’s logical. Sounds like common sense.
Steve: Absolutely. (I knew I was on to something big now)
Al: Left-brain management types always favor a full line. Common sense suggests that a full line of products and services allows you to sell more than if you had a narrow line. Completely wrong. That’s why it’s so hard to win these battles. Common sense is a tough opponent.
Laura: Right-brain marketing favors a narrow line. Selling is the second step in a marketing program. The first step is building a brand in the mind. Building a brand with a full line can be difficult because you don’t stand for anything. And if you don’t stand for anything …
Steve: But if you stand for all things? You’ll surely sell something. I mean it’s just common sense.
Al: Management counts on common sense. Management approaches every situation in a sane, sensible way. Their emphasis is always on the product and the execution. Like I said … very hard to win a battle because common sense and logic … are so logical.
Laura: Marketing counts on marketing sense. The more experience a marketing person has, the more he or she realizes that common sense is usually wrong. Often the illogical, uncommon sense “marketing idea” produces the best results.
Steve: So how do you think this played out when planning for the new high-end Volkswagon Phaeton?
Al: A bunch of people sat down with reams of reports, data, facts, looked at the hard market realities they faced and came up with the logical idea of a $100,000 plus V0lkswagen. Then they had to justify it. Make it make sense. A $100,000 plus Volkswagen. Can you imagine? Why … that’d be like bringing back the Edsel and selling it at WALMART as a high-end luxury car.
DAWS MOMENT (indicates a Deep, Awkward Silence)
Laura: A right-brain marketing type would have never thought it was a good idea. In the automobile field what matters is the brand. Not the product. Perception dictates reality.
Steve: What’s a right-brainer supposed to do when dealing with left-brain management?
Al: Speak their language. Facts, figures, market share analysis. Present their intuitive ideas to a logical thinker logically, in their language.
Laura: Right-brainers have to sell their visual ideas to left-brain management types in verbal terms. Talk about product benefits and features instead of “positioning” the brand in the mind.
Steve: Thank you so much for your time. But … I have to admit something. I’ve been disingenuously disingenuous. I’ve asked most of these questions because I’ve started a new company – and we’re rolling out a new car model. I wanted to test the concept with you. Both from the left-brain and right-brain approach.
ANOTHER DAWS MOMENT
So … I went through the whole EDESLZILLA concept.
A BLACK HOLE DAWS MOMENT
Steve: So what do you think of my Edselzilla? It rocks? Too much left-brain? Right brain? Or …
HOW DEEP CAN A DAWS MOMENT GET?
I don’t know if the reader knows it or not but Al & Laura would be considered right-brain creative types. So they did what any right-brain creative type would do. Presented their answer in a visual.
About Al Ries & Laura Ries
Al & Laura been have been profiled in The Wall Street Journal, Advertising Age, Business Week, USA Today, Marketing News, Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Brandweek and countless other domestic and international magazines and newspapers. Laura is a frequent media commentator appearing on Fox News, CNN, CNBC, Fox Business, ABC News, CBS, PBS and Bloomberg.
Al and Laura are branding gurus known for delivering business insights with wit, wisdom and worldliness. They are sought after speakers around the world including the U.S. India, China, Europe and South America. So far they have worked in 60 countries and counting.
Al is Chairman and Laura is President of Ries & Ries, the marketing strategy firm they founded in 1994. Together they work with clients like Microsoft, Ford, Disney, Merck, Frito-Lay and Unilever.
He was charmingly offensive. Carefully rash. Callously kind. Prayed on his knees, cussed like a sailor. His men called him “Old Blood and Guts.”
But a writer, a poet … a soul of old too?
When Life Was Worth Less Than Zero
This complex man, savagely fighting during the murderous madness of World War II, when life was worth less than zero, believed himself to be a warrior of old.
Of other times. Other places. Many times – many places.
He thought about it. Spoke about it. Wrote about it. But hardly anyone remembers … lost to another time, another place.
His poem, “Through A Glass Darkly,” is an amazing testament to and from a warrior. Each time I read it I marvel at the complex sagacity and intellectual magnificence of this majestic warrior.
One who sinned and suffered. Played hero and knave. Lived life under fire – from battle and politics. Overcame innumerable obstacles of time, place and his own irascible personality. But somehow, he took time, listened to another older, wiser voice – his inner voice – then battled forward, in his changing changeless shape … again.
THROUGH A GLASS DARKLY by Gen. George S. Patton, Jr. Through the travail of the ages, Midst the pomp and toil of war, Have I fought and strove and perished Countless times upon this star. In the form of many people In all panoplies of time Have I seen the luring vision Of the Victory Maid, sublime. I have battled for fresh mammoth, I have warred for pastures new, I have listed to the whispers When the race trek instinct grew. I have known the call to battle In each changeless changing shape From the high souled voice of conscience To the beastly lust for rape. I have sinned and I have suffered, Played the hero and the knave; Fought for belly, shame, or country, And for each have found a grave. I cannot name my battles For the visions are not clear, Yet, I see the twisted faces And I feel the rending spear.
Perhaps I stabbed our Savior In His sacred helpless side. Yet, I’ve called His name in blessing When after times I died. In the dimness of the shadows Where we hairy heathens warred, I can taste in thought the lifeblood; We used teeth before the sword. While in later clearer vision I can sense the coppery sweat, Feel the pikes grow wet and slippery When our Phalanx, Cyrus met. Hear the rattle of the harness Where the Persian darts bounced clear, See their chariots wheel in panic From the Hoplite’s leveled spear. See the goal grow monthly longer, Reaching for the walls of Tyre. Hear the crash of tons of granite, Smell the quenchless eastern fire. Still more clearly as a Roman, Can I see the Legion close, As our third rank moved in forward And the short sword found our foes. Once again I feel the anguish Of that blistering treeless plain When the Parthian showered death bolts, And our discipline was in vain. I remember all the suffering Of those arrows in my neck. Yet, I stabbed a grinning savage As I died upon my back. Once again I smell the heat sparks When my Flemish plate gave way And the lance ripped through my entrails As on Crecy’s field I lay. In the windless, blinding stillness Of the glittering tropic sea I can see the bubbles rising Where we set the captives free. Midst the spume of half a tempest I have heard the bulwarks go When the crashing, point blank round shot Sent destruction to our foe. I have fought with gun and cutlass On the red and slippery deck With all Hell aflame within me And a rope around my neck. And still later as a General Have I galloped with Murat When we laughed at death and numbers Trusting in the Emperor’s Star. Till at last our star faded, And we shouted to our doom Where the sunken road of Ohein Closed us in it’s quivering gloom. So but now with Tanks a’clatter Have I waddled on the foe Belching death at twenty paces, By the star shell’s ghastly glow. So as through a glass, and darkly The age long strife I see Where I fought in many guises, Many names, but always me. And I see not in my blindness What the objects were I wrought, But as God rules o’er our bickerings It was through His will I fought. So forever in the future, Shall I battle as of yore, Dying to be born a fighter, But to die again, once more.
These are tough times. Unstable times. Uncertain times that will test the vision, spirit and mettle of everyone – in life and in business.
These are times when things could go radically and drastically wrong, or … a person or persons, will step up, and by force of one character trait – mold the future direction of our world in a positive way. It’s a test really.
Do we have what it takes to pass?
Sometimes you’re confronted with a scandal or crisis not of your own making and that becomes yourtrue test of character … especially when everyone in the world is looking.
“Character is like a tree and reputation like its shadow. The shadow is what we think of it; the tree is the real thing.”
– Abraham Lincoln
FLUNKING THE TEST
When the test of character is flunked …
families and friendships can be ruined,
businesses destroyed, and
governments brought down.
The story and interview that follows is not about avoiding a scandal or crisis, but how one American President through strength of character dealt with a situation that threatened his presidency, his reputation, his place in history and America’s credibility.
AN AFFAIR SHAKES THE PRESIDENCY
In the mid 1980’s, President Ronald Reagan’s presidency was threatened by a looming scandal – The Iran-Contra affair. His reputation and the ability to lead the United States forward in hopes of ending the Cold War were in imminent danger.
At that critical moment, President Reagan decided to call the Ambassador to NATO, Dr. David M. Abshire, back to serve in the cabinet as Special Counselor.
TRANSPARENCY EXPEDITIOUS (not a disease)
Dr. Abshire’s mission?
Ensure a full investigation of the sale of arms to Iran in exchange for freeing American hostages and the subsequent funneling of those funds to Nicaraguan rebels. And (here’s the tough part) do it expeditiously and transparently, to restore the confidence of the nation in the shaken Reagan presidency.
That phrase sound familiar? To restore the confidence of a nation?
“The best executive is the one who has sense enough to pick good men to do what he wants done, and self restraint to keep from meddling with them while they do it.” – Theodore Roosevelt
Dr. Abshire co-founded the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. His extensive experience, including service as Assistant Secretary of State and later as NATO Ambassador, gives him a perspective both unique and insightful.
He is currently the president of the Center for the Study of the Presidency and also president of the Richard Lounsbery Foundation.Dr. Abshire was Ambassador to NATO where, in reaction to the threat posed by Soviet SS-20 missiles, he was the United States point man in Europe for deployment of Pershing and Cruise missiles. It was this NATO success that convinced the Soviets to sign the historic INP Treaty and withdraw their missiles. Ambassador Abshire initiated a new conventional defense improvement effort so that NATO would not have to rely heavily on nuclear weapons. For this, he was given the highest Defense Department civilian award – its Distinguished Public Service Medal.
Dr Abshire has received the John Carroll Award for outstanding service by a Georgetown University alumnus; the Distinguished Graduate Award of the United States Military Academy; the 1994 U.S. Military Academy’s Castle Award; the Gold Medal of the Sons of the American Revolution; the Baylor Distinguished Alumni Award; the Order of the Crown (Belgium); Commander de l’Ordre de Leopold (Belgium); the Medal of the President of the Italian Republic, Senate, Parliament and Government; Grand Official of the Order of the Republic of Italy; Order of Diplomatic Service Merit Heung-In Medal (Korea); the insignia of the Commander, First Class, Order of the Lion of Finland; in 1999, the Order of the Liberator (Argentina); and in May 2001, the Order of the Sacred Treasure Gold and Silver Star (Japan). In addition to the Department of Defense Medal for Distinguished Public Service, he was awarded the Presidential Citizens Medal.
Dr. Abshire received his bachelor’s degree from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.
In the Korean War, he served as a platoon leader, company commander, and a division assistant intelligence officer. He received The Bronze Star with Oak Leaf Cluster with V for Valor, Commendation Ribbon with medal pendant, and Combat Infantry Badge. He was awarded his Ph.D. in History from Georgetown University with honors (Gold Key Society). He received a Doctor of Humane Letters from Virginia Theological Seminary in 1992 and a Doctor of Civil Law, honoris causa, from the University of the South in 1994.
SAVING THE REAGAN PRESIDENCY
In 1987, Dr. Abshire served as a Special Counselor to President Reagan with Cabinet rank, to coordinate the Iran-Contra investigation, and had authority to meet with the President alone.
Steve: What was your most memorable moment in the crisis with President Reagan that best showcased his strength of character and determination?
Dr. Abshire: I would say that my most memorable moment with President Reagan was the initial phone conversation that I had with him in December 1986. At the time, I was at Truman Hall, my NATO Ambassadorial residence, and I had read all about the trouble the President was in regarding the sale of arms to Iran for hostages. The President requested I come back to Washington to be his special counselor – with cabinet rank – during this crisis and that I would report directly to him.
There are two very important things about this phone call that show Reagan’s strengths and character as a leader:
The fact that he called me personally and did not leave it to one of his staffers shows just how serious of a situation he was in, and just how important it was to him personally to climb out of this dilemma.
Other leaders in his position – who did not care about setting things right – would have left this job to somebody else. The fact that he didn’t says volumes about his determination to get ahead of this crisis.
The fact that he even requested a Special Counselor to help facilitate the crisis from the White House – with the job of getting everything out with no executive privilege – shows that he was concerned with setting things right.
President Reagan was concerned with his reputation as a leader and didn’t want to offer an opportunity for anybody to impugn his integrity and character saying that there was a cover-up.
Steve: What was the most important thing you learned from this experience?
Dr. Abshire: The most important thing I learned is that when you get in a hole, do not dig it deeper; come clean, get outside help, and climb out of it.
If you tell the truth, you don’t have to remember anything.
– Mark Twain
Dr. Abshire: There are many instances of presidents – take Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton for example – that dug their hole deeper until they couldn’t get out.
Nixon did not know about the initial Watergate break in, but he covered up the investigation.
Clinton, instead of admitting to his infidelity at the onset – which is not a crime, made the mistake of lying to a grand jury to hide it from his wife and family and came very close to impeachment.
Reagan, on the other hand, took the necessary steps to save his presidency, which leads me to my second point: the creation of the Tower Board.
Reagan empowered a bipartisan committee to investigate his involvement in the Iran-Contra scandal. This step was essential to show the public and Congress that he was serious about investigating any wrong doing that may have happened on his watch. The President could not get out of his hole or create the Tower Board without “reaching out” – both to myself and to other Members of Congress.
By reaching out and involving Congress in the progress of the investigation, the President gave them a stake in its outcome and also a feeling that they were intimately involved in the process as a whole.
Steve: What surprised you most about this experience with President Reagan?
Dr. Abshire: I was most surprised by the practical nature of the President.
For all talk of a Reagan and Conservative Revolution in the early 1980s with its anti-Communist sentiments, I was pleasantly surprised by Reagan’s philosophy – he was not an ideologue. I was impressed with his ability to shift America’s strategy to face the shifting currents of the times and not to strictly adhere to any ideological plank.
Dr. Abshire: A fine example of this characteristic was when – after he had referred to the Soviet Union as the “Evil Empire” – he came to an agreement with Mikhail Gorbachev at Reykjavik, Iceland to reduce nuclear weapon stockpiles and to limit production of entirely new types of nuclear weapons.
“Sow a thought; reap an action. Sow an act; reap a habit. Sow a habit; reap a character. Sow a character; reap a destiny.” – Charles Reader
Steve: So, in the end – for pauper, prince, president or pope …
Dr. Abshire: In scandal or crisis, character is always the coin of the realm.
This was originally going to be an interview with the international best-selling author Steven Pressfield about his historical thriller, Killing Rommel. Steven is a master storyteller. His works, such as The Virtues of War: A Novel of Alexander the Great, and The Afghan Campaign, and many others are legendary among military aficionados. His book, Gates of Fire: An Epic Novel of the Battle of Thermopylae, is required reading at West Point.
While talking with Steven about Killing Rommel, we wandered off the beaten path a bit to discuss the power of story – in business and life – to move people to higher grounds. The kind of power that can inspire people to perform great feats of selflessness and humanity. But, we didn’t stop there – we derailed onto troublesome questions of morality, character and ethics.
Great Stories are Questions
Really great historical stories make you a part of the past. You’re there. You smell the smells. Hear the sounds. Taste the foods. Trod the paths. But most importantly, they make you think – force you to question the very tenets and precepts of life you may have previously taken for granted … or not even thought of at all.
Questions that allow you to commune with the past, in the present, about the future. But, much as Heraclitus says …
You can not step twice into the same river; for other waters are ever flowing on to you. – Heraclitus
You may also feel great loss when the story ends. Killing Rommel does that. It raises questions that transcend the story itself.
Autumn, 1942. Hitler’s legions have swept across Europe. France has fallen. Churchill and the English are isolated on their island. In North Africa, Rommel and his Panzers have routed the British Eighth Army and stand poised to overrun Egypt, the Suez, and the oilfields of the Middle East. With the outcome of the war hanging in the balance, the British hatch a desperate plan – send a small, highly mobile, and heavily armed force behind German lines to strike a blow that will stop the Afrika Korps in its tracks.
Killing Rommel – 10 Minute Mini-Docu
Narrated from the point-of-view of a young lieutenant, Killing Rommel brings to life the flair, agility, and daring of this extraordinary secret unit – the Long Range Desert Group.
Non Vi Sed Arte
Stealthy and lethal as the scorpion that serves as their insignia, they live by the motto — Non Vi Sed Arte (Not by Strength, by Guile) – as they gather intelligence, set up ambushes, and execute raids.
KILLING ROMMEL: A splendid tour de force, one that brings to life the heroism, sacrifice, tragedy, frustration, fear and — yes — thrill of war. It should not be missed by anyone who wants a moving reminder of the bravery, ingenuity and sacrifice that ordinary men are capable of when given a cause they believe in.” – Washington Post
Enter Steven Pressfield
Steve Kayser: What led you to this story, Killing Rommel, this man, this time, this war?
Steven Pressfield: I was researching Alexander the Great’s cavalry tactics for a couple of earlier books. That led me to Frederick the Great, to Napoleon, and to other more contemporary cavalry commanders. Then, I came across Rommel. He used tanks with the same dash and aggressiveness as Alexander used cavalry. Even though I thought of writing a story strictly about Rommel nothing was clicking. Finally I stumbled upon the British Long Range Desert Group. Something about them grabbed me. I just had to tell the story of these guys – and Rommel.
Steve Kayser: Grabbed you?
Steven Pressfield: Yes. They were a bunch of ordinary, (but special) guys, out in the desert, no roads, no GPS, no CNN or Fox News, no ammo, just some old Chevrolet trucks, and a couple of machine guns … 500 miles behind enemy lines.
Steve Kayser: No Jeeps?
Steven Pressfield: Just Chevrolet trucks. They bought them at a civilian dealership in Cairo.
Steve Kayser: Those are not ordinary guys. I know. I read the posting for the job.
“Only men who do not mind a hard life, with scanty food, little water and lots of discomfort, men who possess stamina and initiative, need apply.”
Steven Pressfield: Ordinary guys in extraordinary circumstances. That posting you refer to was a quote was from the initial British Army Circular, summer 1940, seeking volunteers for what would become the Long Range Desert Group (LRDG).
Steve Kayser: They teamed up with an exceptional unit, the SAS?
Steven Pressfield: Yes. The SAS is the British equivalent of our American Special Forces. SAS stands for Special Air Service. Full of some amazing swashbuckling characters –Paddy Mayne, the most decorated British soldier of WWII, Jock Lewes, George Jellicoe, Sandy Scratchley; Randolph Churchill, son of Prime Minister Winston Churchill and others.
The original conception of the SAS was that they would be a parachute-borne commando outfit. But after one debacle in which men were dropped into a sandstorm and many were lost, the whole concept looked like it would flop horribly. It so happened though that David Stirling (founder of the SAS) was talking with a young LRDG officer who suggested that the SAS forget parachuting (too dangerous) and let the Long Range Desert Group deliver them like a taxi service to their raids. Thus was born a partnership that gave Rommel more headaches than anyone could have imagined.
Steve Kayser: Their mission?
Steven Pressfield: In the darkest hour of the North African war (summer 1942) – when Rommel’s panzers were poised 60 miles from Alexandria and the British in Cairo were burning their code books waiting to be overrun at any moment – the LRDG and the SAS are dispatched on a desperate mission. Their instructions are to use the deep desert routes known only to them, get in the rear of the Afrika Korps and penetrate its formations in the field. From there, they are to locate Rommel and go in after him.
“The peril of the hour moved the British to tremendous exertions, just as always in a moment of extreme danger things can be done which had previously been thought impossible. Mortal danger is an effective antidote for fixed ideas.”– Field Marshal Erwin Rommel
Steve Kayser: Why was Rommel so important? He was just one man.
“We have a very daring and skillful opponent against us, and,may I say across the havoc of war, a great general.” – Winston Churchill
Steven Pressfield: Rommel had gained the world’s respect for his military genius. He was a legend.
“There exists a real danger that our friend Rommel is becoming a kind of magical or bogey-man to our troops, who are talking far too much about him. He is by no means a superman, although he is undoubtedly very energetic and able. Even if he were a superman, it would still be highly undesirable that our men should credit him with supernatural powers.” – British General Claude Auchinleck
Steven Pressfield: At the same time, Rommel was reminiscent of the more romantic, chivalrous days of old – and was a genuinely humane military officer. Rommel was Germany’s best General. You have to remember all of Europe was in Nazi hands at the time. The Americans hadn’t entered the war yet. Russia was being attacked by 166 Nazi divisions. Things were grim. And Rommel, the greatest desert fighting general of all time, and his Africa Korps, were kicking the British’s butt, pushing them back to Cairo. It became a case where the war might have been lost right there.
Steve Kayser: Chivalrous in war? Can you give an example?
Steven Pressfield: When Rommel’s panzers overran a British field hospital where the staff had elected not to flee but to stay with their patients (who were German and Italian as well as British and Commonwealth), Rommel visited the site at once, shook the hand of every doctor and nurse and thanked them personally. He asked them to stay on until he could bring up his own Afrika Korps medical personnel (the British readily agreed), then made it a point of honor not to make them prisoners of war but to have them repatriated through neutral Switzerland. Can you imagine something like that happening today?
Steve Kayser: No. Today they’d be sent back without their heads. If they were sent back at all. You mentioned that the battle in North Africa was marked by an astonishing amount of self-restraint among combatants.
Steven Pressfield: Yes. Rommel himself wrote an account of his experiences in North Africa. He titled it Krieg Ohne Hass, “War Without Hate.” Deliberate self-restraint was a fact on the ground in the North Africa campaign of ’40 to ’43. Machine gunners on both sides routinely held their fire when crewmen bailed out of shot-up tanks, stretcher-bearers were permitted to dash into the open to collect the wounded. In dressing stations and field hospitals, it was not uncommon for soldiers of the Axis and Allies to be treated side-by-side – often by German and British doctors working shoulder to shoulder.
Steve Kayser: War without hate. Deliberate self-restraint. Allowed enemy soldiers to be treated by his doctors. That took a lot of courage on his part.
Steven Pressfield: More than you know. He was ordered several times by Hitler to “Stand and Die.” To fight to the last bullet, the last man. To execute and torture prisoners. He defied those orders.
Steve Kayser: You tell the story through a young lieutenant who was not a professional soldier. In fact, far from it. He was an average guy in college then … the war came.
Steven Pressfield: Yes. I wanted to examine the actions of ordinary men under extraordinary circumstances. To ask the question if, in the end, their very ordinariness wasn’t what saved them and brought them ultimately to victory.
Steve Kayser: Was there actually a real mission to kill Rommel?
Steven Pressfield: Yes. It was on one of Rommel’s camps called Beda Litoria, which was an Italian town. The Brits thought Rommel was there and they attacked at night with special forces. But he wasn’t there. They killed a bunch of Afrika Korps soldiers, then they were killed themselves. The interesting part was that Rommel had the British soldiers buried with honor, alongside his defenders.
Steve Kayser: To me, Killing Rommel is a story layered with morals, courage and questions. Lots of questions. What question or issue were you trying to shine the most light on?
Steven Pressfield: The issue of morality in warfare. Not just in theoretical terms but from the point-of-view of the individual soldier on the ground. Today, in the era of suicide bombers and global terrorism and the response to terrorism, (which is a moral question equally as important), I wanted to shine a light on another time and a different way of fighting a war. And not a wimpy war, but the most devastating, all-out conflict in the history of humankind.
Is it possible for men to retain their humanity while fighting for the very survival of civilization? What part do ethics, chivalry and self-restraint play in modern armed conflict? Are these some quaint holdovers from a vanished past? Or, can the honorable actions of officers and men actually help produce victory?
Steve Kayser: Could people like General Rommel or General Patton make it today, or even exist – with all the constraints of Western political correctness? Realistically? Take General Patton, for example. Charming, yet mean as a snake. Dyslexic, yet brilliant. His temper and rash acts made people question his intelligence. He could be vicious and violent, yet a gentleman. He was a history buff that seemed to live life outside his own time – almost as if he had lived before. Kind-hearted and callous, he prayed on his knees but cussed like a sailor. He was stone-faced in battle, but cried like a baby for his fallen soldiers. His men called him “Old Blood and Guts.” If you ever read his poem“Through a Glass Darkly,”you will be touched, astounded or shocked at the depth of his vision and intelligence. But could Patton make it today? I say no.
Steven Pressfield: Good question. They were very different – yet very much alike. Noble warriors. But it is men and women of moral strength and character like them that have to surface when you’re facing an implacable foe. Especially when you’re fighting for the very survival of your civilization. Leaders with Character, Chivalry and Courage – Relics of the Past? What do you think?
And what about yourself?
Have you faced difficult moments in your life where you chose the tough road, the politically incorrect but right path, and paid the price – by way of money, job, relationships or self-respect? What did you learn?
Would you do anything different?
Let me know.
Please keep answers to 100 words. Email me with the subject line GREAT LEADERS at Skayser@cincom.com.
Best 10 reponses will win a copy of KILLING ROMMEL.
About Steve Pressfield:
Since this is a different kind of story, I decided to to do an Animotorized bio-pictorial “About Steven Pressfield.” Why is it different? Because it is. It’s the world’s first.
“They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning.
We will remember them.”
“For the Fallen” by Laurence Binyon
A Memory Bouquet 2008
At the end of each year, major media outlets run feature stories listing notables and celebrities that have passed away during the year; stories that recount highlights of the person’s life.
Through the Dark Recesses
Sometimes memories connect through space and time linked to your own remembrances of the person. Memories of what you were doing at a certain time in your life, at a certain place.
Special memories randomly emerge from the dark recesses of time. You feel heaviness, a sense of loss, not only for the “notable person” or “celebrity” that you probably never met, but also for yourself. For the loss of time.
Well, here’s my feature story.
It’s a little bit longer than the major media outlets would publish. Names of people like Troy, Coleman, Ben, Joshua, John, Christopher, Thomas, Stephen, Solomon, Miguel, Christian, Aaron, Armondo, Adam, Stacy, Daniel, Randy, Tavarus, David, Michael, Janelle, Jordan, Jorge, Michael, Brian, Jorge, Andre, Mark, Joshua.
The Loved and Lost
… and on … and on … and horribly on.
Fathers, mothers, daughters, sons, wives, husbands, cousins, nephews, nieces, all.
Not by Accident
They passed on not by accident, not by bodily deterioration brought on by the mean ravages of time, but because they had a special job.
A job that ended a too-brief sojourn on this blue-green magical wonder called earth.
A job they chose.
So Costly a Sacrifice
They were American soldiers.
A step ahead.
A step behind.
A look left, instead of right.
Right, instead of left.
Up instead of down.
Down instead of up.
A blink of the eye at the wrong time.
And … it was over.
What is Life?
“It is the flash of a firefly in the night. It is the breath of a buffalo in the wintertime.
It is the little shadow that runs across the grass and loses itself in the sunset.”
– Crowfoot, Native American Blackfoot warrior and orator
The fleeting flash of a firefly in the night … gone.
Their Undiminishable Light …
… echoes eternally throughout the music of the spheres like heavenly bagpipes playing Amazing Grace … across the unfathomable unknowable on their way toThe Last Post.
Who Were These Fireflies in the Night?
Who were these shadows that ran across the grass riding a Sonata of Moonlighton an Ode to Joy – to living, giving and life?
Who Were These Fireflies in the Night?
Who were these shadows that ran across the grass into the arms of an …