Power Vs. Force: Which Caught Osama?

If the killing of Osama bin Laden teaches us anything, it illuminates the true distinction between force and power. Force is charging against your enemy; Power, on the other hand, is more delicate to handle.


If the killing of Osama bin Laden teaches us anything, it illuminates the true distinction between force and power.


Force is charging against your enemy, head-on, drums beating, clouds of dust filling the air. Force is amassing soldiers on exposed battlefields and seeking the satisfaction of feeling we are doing “our best to win.” Force is sweat and effort and anger and passion. Force has a payoff–it rallies the citizens back at home–but it usually comes at overwhelming cost, such as the 4,311 American lives lost in Iraq since President George Bush declared “Mission Accomplished” on May 1, 2003.

Power, on the other hand, is more delicate to handle. It involves cold calculation, patience and precision. Power is being willing to sit and plan through passion that screams at you to get up and do something.

As Albert Einstein said, “If I had an hour to solve a problem and my life depended on the solution, I would spend the first 55 minutes determining the proper question to ask, for once I know the proper question, I could solve the problem in less than 5 minutes.”

Power is spending months to gather reliable intelligence and plan a careful attack, then putting a clear plan in the hands of a small group of highly trained Navy Seals that take 40 minutes to bring about a more rapid end.

I’m making a practical argument here, not a moral or partisan one. Whatever you are up to in this world–building a business, leading a social movement, launching a political campaign, or planning a military operation–you are better off choosing power if you are after results. Sun Tzu, the ancient Chinese general, offers three pieces of practical advice if you choose the path of power:

1) Gather intelligence. Sun Tzu advocates the use of spies to gather intelligence and it was ultimately intelligence that enabled the U.S. to act with precision. I asked Thomas Huyne, the creator of one of the most authoritative websites on Sun Tzu ( and the author of what I think is one of the best translations of Sun Tzu (see, about the U.S. killing of Osama. He said that Sun Tzu advocates using spies in order to engineer (a) a less costly victory and (b) a speedier victory. You can see how good intelligence played a critical role last week.


2) Focus on the real target. Sun Tzu wrote, “Empires are lost when inadequate men become leaders and wage war for base reasons or for no reason at all.” Bin Laden was captured in Pakistan. Every major Al Qaeda leader we have found has been hiding in a large Pakistani city. Yet we have spent trillions funding military efforts in the mountains of Afghanistan and the deserts of Iraq. Have our passions misguided us? Were we investing this money–and far more significantly, risking lives–with our hearts or our intelligence?

Keep it short. Sun Tzu wrote, “There is no instance of a country having benefited from a long war.” Prolonged active conflict costs too much, so plan your strategy carefully, then execute it rapidly. The longer a lawsuit drags on, the more lawyers make and the less is left on the table for the parties. The longer you fight for a client, the more concessions you and your competitor will end up giving and the worse off you are.

I remember sitting outside in a Cuban café in Miami a few days after the 9-11 attacks. I was having lunch with some McKinsey colleagues and they were talking about how the U.S. should respond. Their solution involved massive force–helicopters and tanks and bombs–destroying Iraq until the perpetrators were surely gone.

At the time I wanted to call them crazy. I wanted to say “first of all, we don’t know if Iraq has anything to do with 9-11, and secondly, that will not end the conflict; it may make us feel better but may very well make us worse off.” I was too unsure of myself to speak up around these people who I thought of as well read and highly intelligent.

But last week’s killing of Osama bin Laden lights a fire in my belly. It makes me wish I had spoken out then. I hope it encourages others who know how I felt to speak out next time. Force is like a drug. It gives you a temporary shot of dopamine. It makes you feel like you are making progress. But often times you end up crashing down to be worse off than you were before. It’s far better–if you are really after results–choosing the path of power: gather intelligence, focus on the real target, and keep it short.

About the author

Author of Outthink the Competition business strategy keynote speaker and CEO of Outthinker, a strategic innovation firm, Kaihan Krippendorff teaches executives, managers and business owners how to seize opportunities others ignore, unlock innovation, and build strategic thinking skills. Companies such as Microsoft, Citigroup, and Johnson & Johnson have successfully implemented Kaihan’s approach because their executive leadership sees the value of his innovative technique. Kaihan has delivered business strategy keynote speeches for organizations such as Motorola, Schering‐Plough, Colgate‐Palmolive, Fortune Magazine, Harvard Business Review, the Society of Human Resource Managers, the Entrepreneurs Organization, and The Asia Society