“Let us pretend for a moment you are a dentist. It took you years to receive the training you would need to be certified and licensed. Now, imagine I walk up to you in a meeting and say, “I am a dentist.” How long would it take you to figure out that if I, a person with no dental training, went messing around with your teeth or gums, it would not go well?
It sounds ridiculous to think a person with no training would claim to be a dentist, but the same thing happens when someone with no training in strategy development suddenly claims to be a strategist.
If the dentist were to watch me attempt to fill a cavity and tell me I am not a dentist, they are possibly saving someone’s life. When a person like me, trained in many facets of strategy development, watches someone with no training attempt to be a strategist, it is not as dangerous initially but can still cost lives in the right circumstances.
People have a fascination with the words “strategist” and “strategy,” but those same people rarely know what these terms mean. Perhaps this is because the word defines itself; a strategist is a person skilled in strategy. Let us try this another way; a dentist is a person skilled in dentistry – no kidding. In case the issue is not clear enough, let us define a dentist.
Dentist – one who is skilled in and licensed to practice the prevention, diagnosis, and treatment of diseases, injuries, and malformations of the teeth, jaws, and mouth and who makes and inserts false teeth.i
Maybe it would be better to look at the definition of the word “strategy.”
(1) the science and art of employing the political, economic, psychological, and military forces of a nation or group of nations to afford the maximum support to adopted policies in peace or war
(2) the art of devising or employing plans or stratagems toward a goalii
There are a few keys words in the definition – science, art, and goal. That strategy is part science and art is a well-known fact to those trained in its use.
The science of strategy means accounting for specific variables for which we have little control. Vehicles and aircraft move at certain speeds, fuel lasts for so long at specific consumption rates, and machinery manufactures a finished item in a set amount of time. That is the science that informs strategy. Failure to account for these hard facts often leads to impractical or impossible plans.
The art of strategy is much broader and harder to master. It is how a strategist moves from an aspirational goal to the specific steps necessary to achieve that goal. “I want world peace” is easy to say. “How,” is the harder question. To witness our surrender in Afghanistan was easy (though not for us Afghanistan war veterans). To predict a range of consequences from our surrender and how to deal with them, a lot harder. With training and years of expertise, the predictions become more trustworthy and the potential solutions more realistic, especially when one is trained in strategy development and has years of experience analyzing world events.
Strategy with no clearly defined goal is pointless.
It is the years of experience and training that make a strategist not simply calling yourself one in a meeting. In my military experience, we employed a variety of terms with purpose. Strategic is something at the national or global level. Operational is based on a region or specific area of conflict. Tactical are those specific actions taken by individuals or smaller units to achieve operational and strategic objectives. Where the U.S. often fails is in the strategic realm. Too many of our nation’s elected representatives lack a truly strategic mindset and necessary training.
My training in strategy started with learning chess at six years old. It continued during my 28 years of military service where I attended the nation’s best strategy schools. I also went through the Project Management Professional (PMP) certification process, media training, Lean Six Sigma, and other Change Management training.
I am not a strategist because I applied the label to myself in a meeting. I am a strategist because I went through years of training and applied that training to real world scenarios in multiple countries and organizations. I am not a dentist, doctor, lawyer, or accountant; I do not have the training.
Claiming the strategist title does not make a strategist anymore than claiming to be a dentist makes one ready to pull teeth.”
Lt Col (ret), US Army, Darin Gaub is a Co-founder of Restore Liberty, an international military strategist and foreign policy analyst, an executive leadership coach, and serves on the boards of multiple volunteer international, national, and state level organizations. He also serves as Chairman of the Lewis and Clark County Montana Republican Central Committee. The views presented are those of the author and do not represent the views of the U.S. Government, Department of Defense, or its components.