experts like Michael Vlahos have spent more
than a decade re-exploring the role of “strategic narratives” in war. This is
because, as I mentioned in my last post, there has been a shift in the nature
of war. In my interview with Vlahos, we discussed how the role of “strategic
narratives” has been thrust to the forefront of our arsenal of military tools.To learn more about Vlahos’ newest book, Fighting Identity: Sacred War and World Change, click here.
this context, strategic narratives are considered to be “compelling
storylines which can explain events convincingly and from which inferences can
be drawn.” Or alternatively, “an interlocking framework of ‘truths’”
that explain how a conflict came to be, where it is going, and how it should be
argued and described.
story of the September 11, 2001, attacks offer a modern example of what
strategic narratives are and why they are useful tools for understanding
conflict. In 2003, 75 percent of Americans polled supported the U.S. response
to the 9/11 attacks – its offensive against Iraq.
years later, in April 2007, 58 percent of participants of the same poll now
felt the U.S. attack on Iraq was a mistake.
military experts find strategic narratives, or the discourse of the historic
event, as a way to explain this shift and manage conflicts so that they can
win. This is important because people would naturally rather support the winner
than the loser. As Nicollo Machiavelli eloquently
“…because if the two powerful
neighbors of yours come to blows, either they are such that, one of them
winning, you have to fear the winner, or not. In whichever of these two cases,
it will always be more useful to you to come out openly and make a good war;
because in the first case, if you do not come out, you will always be the prey
of whoever wins, with the pleasure and satisfaction of the vanquished, and you
have neither reason nor anything that might defend you or that might give you
shelter. Because he who wins does not want suspect friends who did not help him
in adversity; he who loses does not shelter you, because you did not want to
rescue his fortune with arms in hand.”
thought process also applies to business because the same human principles
operate here. Corporations must build authentic narratives that make people
want to belong. As Vlahos said in our interview, “The relationship between
customers and the corporation needs to be something more than manipulation by
the corporation to get what they want. It has to satisfy their vision of what
they are and what they want to be.”
Vlahos contends that a corporation’s narrative needs to be in harmony with that
of the greater civilization. A business’ actions become the posts of its story,
and a company needs to show that ultimately this fits with where the community
at large wants to go.
is that link – between the corporate narrative and the cultural one – where
Ethonomics comes in. If people want companies that are moving in the direction
of ethics and sustainability, then companies must show that their narratives
fit this vision too.
I loved about this interview was the practicality of it. Here is someone who
knows a lot about war and bloodshed explaining the strategic benefit of being
Strategic Narratives to Explain Apple’s Allure
turned to the implication of strategic narratives in business, he picked a
prominent corporate “war” to make his point: Apple vs. Microsoft. The narrative view offers a fascinating
explanation for what is happening between these competitors.
generated significantly more value than Apple, but Apple
has plugged into the national Zeitgeist (our general
trend of thought and feeling) more powerfully. Vlahos says that narratives
can explain this, and a company’s narrative is often tied to that of its leader.
Steve Jobs, founder and CEO of
Apple, has been able to sense the national narrative of being an “underdog” and
plugs into it. He represents something that many of us want to be part of. Jobs
represents salvation and success through innovation and hard work.
Conversely, Vlahos sees that “[Microsoft Chairman Bill] Gates represents, whether he
likes it or not, the gilded age – the age of Rockefeller.”
The gilded age narrative may have been an alluring
historical story, but it is no longer the ideal. It does not lead to where the
majority of Americans want to see us going – to a place of efficient
sustainability where average people have the chance to realize their dreams and
monopolies do not win.
strategic narrative plays a role within the company and outside of the company.
Ask yourself the questions below to see how you can craft a narrative that your
employees and your customers can support.
1. What is your company’s narrative?
2. How does your company’s narrative fit the broader
3. Is the narrative closely associated with your company’s
can I share our narrative to inspire others?