King Gustav and the Importance of the Winter Initiative
Typically wars are fought in Spring & Summer, but history also has quite a few examples of generals using the winter as a perfect cover for a surprise attack. Hannibal was not expected to arrive in Italy across the Alps in the dead of Winter catching the Romans by surprise in the Spring. Likewise, William the Conqueror landed in September 1066 and was crowned King of England in London by December. Certainly Winter campaigns can be successful – and much of it hangs on careful planning. Now, my personal enemies are spreadsheets, deadlines, taxes, and one incredibly finicky laptop, but let’s see if I can learn a thing or two from history this winter to slay these foes, too.
At the height of the Second Northern War of 1656-60, King Charles X Gustav was bogged down in Northern Europe against Sweden’s powerful Eastern neighbors: Germans, Poles, Russians and their allies. The campaign had been reduced to a guerilla war of attrition. It was slowly depleting the morale of his men and his leadership was in doubt. Then there was more bad news from the West. Seeing a chance to cast off the yoke of their powerful neighbor, the Danes took this opportunity to also declare open war on Sweden and join the alliance against Gustav.
What seemed like a further setback for the Swedes, one that could have meant utter disaster, this new front was welcomed by Gustav, surprising even some of his own generals. The reality was that Gustav needed a pretext to extricate himself out of Poland without appearing to retreat. Being an experienced military man himself, when a war on multiple fronts presents itself, the best course of action is to tackle each enemy one at a time, to get out of the middle, so to speak.
This new threat from the West was the pretext he needed not just as an example to his enemies, but also to his own army and citizens back home. He immediately marched his army North West and arrived in the heart of Denmark by late Summer 1657. It was so sudden, the Danes could hardly muster an effective resistance and the allies were now too far away to offer any assistance. The only caveat was that the capital of Denmark, Copenhagen, was on an island, winter was around the corner and the Swedish army, albeit seasoned veterans, were significantly depleted from the previous year’s campaigns. More crucially, the Danes had a fresh, larger, and well-trained navy.
The Danish leadership felt secure enough on their remote island that they decided to rest for the winter, leaving the Swedish army to languish on the mainland in the cold. Gustav was not one to settle or retreat, but he had a problem on his hands. As the winter grew colder, snow began to fall, ice started to form on streams and lakes, and his army grew wary. The ice was also staring to strand his army because his ships would not be able to bring them home. He was now stranded, weakened, hungry and cold.
When the cold, snow and ice became severe, he happened on an idea, something that had not been possible for many years. He sent his engineers out to see if the ice would support his army to allow them to cross the sea. Indeed, in the dead of winter, he marched a small, efficient, and highly disciplined force of 9000 infantry and 3000 horse across the ice. After two such crossings his army reached the gates of Copenhagen. Catching the Danes completely by surprise they quickly capitulated, signed a hugely disadvantageous treaty granting Sweden significant relief, and left the alliance.
The expedition was so quick, decisive and daring that it became the highlight of the war, and showed that Gustav was indeed a significant leader of Europe and that the Swedish army was not one to be trifled with. It also had a significant impact on the remainder of the war in the East.
There are some important lessons here, even for me against my enemies: spreadsheets, deadlines and taxes:
When faced with a seemingly impossible situation where multiple things go wrong, pick the most recent one and tackle that one first. It shows initiative and perseverance not just to adversaries, but also to those closest to you and also yourself.
Don’t hesitate to start on a path even if you don’t know where it will end. Oftentimes it is more important to make a move, than to stay stuck.
You never know what the future may bring. Be prepared to harness any new opportunity that may arise.
Adversity can bring opportunity. Furthermore, each adversity one overcomes becomes proof of capable leadership – the benefits multiply.
Never stop working to find solutions. When working on building a business, there are many lulls and stagnant periods when nothing seems to move forward. Those are the times to be most active in looking for solutions and being open to new ideas.
When others rest, celebrate, or retreat, this is the best time to get to work: it is quieter, work becomes more focused, and new opportunities become apparent. Don’t make a New Year’s resolution, start on the resolution now, before the end of the year.
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Studying history is a passion for me. To prepare for this article, I read several completely unrelated histories, from a Biography of Christina, a fascinating predecessor who converted to Catholicism at a time when this was unthinkable for a Swedish queen to do so, to a long description of Sweden’s many trade routes and diplomatic missions throughout Europe, the Middle East and farther.
As it turns out Winter is also a great time to get lost in studying a topic that fascinates you. As with the lessons above, you never know what you will stumble across. For example, I found out that the Swedes established a significant colony in North America called New Sweden along the Delaware river. I am now motivated to find out more about what happened to this colony and it may become a feature in a future article. The point is that we should never stop learning, even in the dead of Winter. Sure, it’s great to spend time with loved ones and enjoy a trip far away occasionally. Yet even then, we should never stop learning from others and the things around us.
I truly believe there is much we can learn about running a business by studying history, but there is just as much to learn about this from talking with friends and family. Just about every person you talk to has “an idea” for a business, and a few have even started one. So pour your great-uncle another eggnog and get him to tell you some of his stories. You may be surprised what you will learn.
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