An Alabama & Auburn man

One of the interesting things about the confrontational attitude between Alabama and Auburn is how complimentary the schools are to one another. You can see that through the many important people who have matriculated at both schools. When I was searching through my google reader today an Auburn blog had a very nice feature on an Auburn man—Marine Corps Gen. Holland Smith.

Smith received an undergraduate degree from Auburn and a law degree from the University. However, Smith went on to military service after a year of law practice. WarEagleReader provides a generous snippet of General Smith’s biography. (You can read the entire biography online here.)

As a student of history (yes I studied history and political science in college), I shared General Smith’s boyhood passion for reading Napoleon. It was probably this segment of Smith’s biography that captured my attention:

Before I went to Auburn, I had fallen under the magic of Napoleon’s genius and read everything about him I could get my hands on. In Seale, I had to buy books out of my allowance and consequently my reading was limited. Furthermore, my father strongly disapproved of this hero worship and promptly confiscated any book he found dealing with Napoleon. To counteract what I considered an unreasonable prejudice, I took to hiding my books under the house, which stood off the ground.

At Auburn things were different. The college had an excellent library and I read everything it offered on Napoleon, to the detriment of other studies. The Corsican’s character fascinated me, his prowess awed me, and his rapid marches and countermarches across the map of Europe, defeating one adversary after another, implanted in my mind military principles that served me well later, although paradoxically the Auburn military atmosphere nauseated me.

The trait that counted most heavily in may youthful assessment of Napoleon was his offensive spirit.

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The last line was something as a youth that impressed me as well. Napoleon, Frederick the Great and Robert E. Lee were all generals who understood the value of the offensive. In fact, Napoleon in his maxims of war described the offensive thusly:

Maxim IX. The strength of an army, like power in mechanics, is estimated by multiplying the mass by the rapidity; a rapid march augments the morale of an army, and increases its means of victory.

The applicability to management (both of warfare, sports and business) is easily understood. People who think they are moving toward something are more productive than people who think they are sitting around waiting on something to happen. In business you can easily become complacent and defending market share—when an environment becomes stagnant so too do the people.

Even in play calling you can see the advantages to attacking instead of defending. Nick Saban once mentioned a time he made a call to go for a fourth down conversion, it failed, but the players understood the lesson—he had confidence in them. It set the stage for a victory.

Napoloen also said:

An army of rabbits led by a lion is superior to an army of lions led by a rabbit.

This was one of the reasons that I welcomed the appointment of Nick Saban as Alabama’s head football coach. Mike Shula was a rabbit. Nick Saban is a lion.

There is no substitute for leadership—without it an organization withers and dies. Like Forbes Magazine noted, Saban is in command in Tuscaloosa. You can’t doubt it. And that is a very comforting thought.

However, I’ve diverged from my main point: that while Alabama and Auburn fans feud over football, who has the better students, etc. the schools share many of the same students—students who have gone on to do great things—men like General Holland M. Smith.