coup d’oeil (part two)

In part one of this series, we — or at least I — decided that people have an almost intuitive ability to reach snap conclusions or rapid cognition of a situation based on a depth of insight that we don’t know we have and are hard-pressed to explain. We further posited that this situation has been somewhat unwelcome in business — it makes us uncomfortable, but it is nonethless present. While many professions have a term for this ability, the field of business does not. In the world of military strategy, it’s known as coup d’oeil, or “the power of the glance.”[1]

What I’m doing here is taking a phrase from military usage — coup d’oeil — and applying it to the business world. The allusions have been made before, of course. In Oliver Stone’s 1987 movie Wall Street, Michael Douglas’ Gordon Gekko quoting a passage, tells his protégé Bud Fox (Charlie Sheen) to go and read Sun Tsu’s The Art of War. You knew that young Bud had really taken to the game when he quoted Sun Tsu back to Gekko later on in the movie. The movie was a hit, and book sales of an ancient Chinese author skyrocketed. Is business war? In most ways, I really hope not, but there are some striking parallels and lessons to be learned… and I don’t mean the rape-and-pillage kind.

Malcolm Gladwell again:

In the early 1990s, when [Paul] Van Riper was head of the Marine Corps University at Quantico, Virginia, he became friendly with a man named Gary Klein. Klein ran a ocnsulting firm in Ohio and wrote a book called Sources of Power, which is one of the classic works on decision making. Klein studied nurses, intensive care units, firefighters, and other people who make decisions under pressure, and one of his conclusions is that when experts make decisions, they don’t logically and systematically compare all available options. That is the way people are taught to make decisions, but in real life it is much too slow. Klein’s nurses and firefighters would size up a situation almost immediately and act, drawing on experience and intuition and a kind of rough mental simulation. To Van Riper, that seemed to describe much more accurately how people make decisions on the battlefield.

Once, out of curiousity, Van Riper and Klein and a group of about a dozen Marine Corp generals flew to the Mercantile Exchange in New York to visit the trading floor. Van Riper thought to himself, I’ve never seen this sort of pandemonium except in a military command post in war — we can learn something from this. After the bell rang at the end of the day, the generals went onto the floor and played trading games. Then they took a group of traders from Wall Street across New York Harbour to the military base on Governor’s Island and played war gmes on computers. The traders did brilliantly. The war games required them to make decisive, rapid-fire decisions under conditions of high pressure and with limited information, which is, of course, what they did all day at work. Van Riper then took the traders down to Quantico, put them in tanks, and took them on a live fire exercise. To Van Riper, it seemed clearer and clearer that these “overweight, unkempt, lon-haired” guys and the Marine Corps brass were fundamentally engaged in the same business — the only difference being that one group bet on money and the other bet on lives. “I remember the first time the traders met the generals,” Gary Klein says. “It was at the cocktail party, and I saw something that really startled me. You had all these marines, these two- and three-star generals, and you know what a Marine Corps general is like. Some of them had never been to New York. Then there were all these traders, these brash, young New Yorkers in their twenties and thirties, and I looked at the room and there were groups of two and three, and there was not a single group that did not include members of both sides. They weren’t just being polite. They were animatedly talking to each other. THey were comparing notes and connecting. I said to myself, These guys are soul mates. They were treating each other with total respect.”[2]

I found this quite striking the first time I read it. The military, betting with lives instead of just money, has a phrase to describe the instinctive understanding of the field of battle, but the same phenomenon in business is likely to be scoffed at and mistrusted. Put the generals and the traders together, even put them in each others’ shoes, and they operate on the same principles, doing quite well, actually. People in these two professions turn out to be kindred spirits — or in Klein’s words, “soul mates.”

It turns out we’re happy to have generals dealing in lives work “from the gut”, and we find it credible and entertaining for a detective in a television drama to do the same. In the business world, it might be okay for Jack Welch, but… let’s don’t push it, okay? I think it may well be the case that many, if not most, successful entrepreneurs, business strategists, and CEOs have this quality about them. One of the major lessons of Jim Collins’ classic Good to Great comes early in the book, namely that a great CEO is not cut from the cloth you’d expect… in many ways, he’s the antithesis of what you’d expect.[3] Perhaps the quiet CEO who exhibits the qualities that Collins describes is also sitting on a kind of instinctive reflection of the business scenario before him, gathering the data he needs — often subconsciously. Later, he’s perhaps unable to explain with great precision why he reached some of the conclusions he did, but he doesn’t always have to explain himself under the gun — he’s the CEO, after all. Just wait for the results to come in. Perhaps this is one reason why, as Collins suggests, when this kind of leader succeeds, he credits good luck and a great team.[4]


  1. Although that should catch you up, I still recommend reading the earlier post, “coup d’oeil (part one)“. [back]
  2. Malcolm Gladwell, Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking (2005), p.107-108. [back]
  3. See Jim Collins, Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap…and Others Don’t (2000), particularly Chapter 2 on what Collins terms “Level Five Leadership”. The chapter summary on p.39-40 covers most of it, but note an inverse relationship between going from good to great and leadership under a personality driven celebrity-style CEO. [back]
  4. Ibid. The corollary is that if he gets it wrong, he simply blames himself. [back]