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Message from Morsing Business as War - A Reflection on the Language of Business Leadership Success
05 May, 2022 New York, United States

Business as War - A Reflection on the Language of Business Leadership Success

“Are you playing to play or playing to win” (Stalk and Lachenauer, 2004)

Business as War. A reflection on the language of business leadership success.

A professor colleague said to me not so long ago: ‘the language of business is war’. He asked me if I had noted how laden business talk is with phrases from war. How we, in our professional lives, hear managers, business consultants, business media and business school professors talk about business as if it is warfare: ‘win the battle’, ‘fight back’, ‘attack the enemy’, ‘defend our position’, ‘the market is a battlefield’, employees are ‘footsoldiers’, ‘being defensive is a losing strategy’, and ‘be prepared to fight’ with ‘aggressive tactics’. Some even go as far as talking about ‘killing the enemy’ when they describe the preferred way of engaging with other businesses operating in the same industry. The prestigious Harvard Business School Press published a business book called Hardball: Are you playing to play or playing to win describing companies who are “ruthless”, “mean”, “willing to hurt their rivals” and “enjoy watching their competitors squirm” (Stalk and Lachenauer, 2004). Machiavelli’s five-hundred-year old book describing war-like principles for leadership in The Prince (1532) somehow still seems to inspire and govern as an underlying principle for much of management training in classrooms around the world where we educate the next generation of leaders on what successful business looks like. It is almost as if ‘winning the war’ is the recipe for a successful business leader.

While some will argue that ‘these are just words’ and ‘it is just a way of framing the market context of business’, we also know that the way we frame the world in words affects the way we perceive the world, make decisions, and engage with each other. And war is a horrible metaphor for business. It frames the company as an adversarial approach to business responsibilities in which almost everyone outside the company becomes an enemy.

There is a profound need to review the language in business schools and the vocabulary with which we describe the role and responsibilities of the firm, as well as what it means to be a successful business leader. It is unlikely that the challenges of climate change, increasing inequalities, human rights abuses, the COVID-19 pandemic, and a decade-long decline in the percentage of people living in world democracies will be addressed and bettered if the world’s leaders engage with each other as enemies who are to be ‘won over’. If war is the prevailing metaphor for business, it implies an urgency to direct all resources to attend to and win that war, leaving other issues, such as human rights, inequalities and climate change, seeming less important.

Science has shown us that the planet is, more than ever, in need of leaders who can generate and manage partnerships across and within sectors, industries and countries to solve the planet’s fundamentally transnational problems. This requires frameworks of collaboration, co-ownership, participation, co-construction, and engaging a collective purpose. This requires a new language in our business school textbooks and curricula as well as the vernacular of the world’s business leaders, consultants and business media. There is emerging research and literature developing new frameworks with new business vocabulary. There is also an increasing number of deans specifically stating in policies and strategy documents that their vision is to educate leadership students with collaborative and empathetic mindsets, and to make businesses’ purpose addressing societal challenges.

The next important step is to see this research and these policy and strategy documents reflected more comprehensively in the vocabulary and frameworks of the world’s leadership education programs.

As we know: “if you want to change business, you want to change how business is taught.”

Mette Morsing

Head of PRME, Principles for Responsible Management Education

UN Global Compact, New York


Machiavelli, N. (reprint 1981). “The Prince”. New York, N.Y. :Penguin Books (Machiavelli lived 1469-1527 and his book ‘The Prince’ was written in 1513 and is dated to have been first published in 1532, five years after Machiavelli’s death)

Stalk, G. and Lachenauer, R. (2004). “Are you playing to play or playing to win.” Massachusetts: Harvard Business School Press

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