In any field, brilliant maneuvers are remembered and celebrated. But brilliant maneuvers without consolidation amounts to nothing long-term except the empty glory.
We could look at military commanders for an example. There's been some in history that have shown remarkable amounts of brilliance in pioneering tactics and doing crazy maneuvers. These sorts of things go into the history books, like Hannibal Barca's actions or Napoleon Bonaparte's.
Despite Barca and Bonaparte being remembered for their brilliance, it's worth remembering that neither of them won in the end.
We've talked about over-expansiveness in the past and not trusting your successors/family to keep up with your work, which is a common flaw that afflicts low born creators and leaders. Today, I want to look at something a little bit different - on brilliant actions and consolidating actions.
One time, when Hannibal's troops were pinned down by the Romans and it looked like all would be lost, he came up with a brilliant scheme. He waited until nightfall, and then took all of the oxen in his camp, tied branches and tinder to their horns, and lit them on fire and drove them off.
The oxen panicked, as can be imagined, but the Romans - normally incredibly steadfast - also panicked. They saw loud noises and flamed horns emerging from the night - it must have felt like the Depths of Hell were opening.
During the confusion, the Carthaginian forces were able to escape.
This was a brilliant desperate move on Hannibal's part, one of many brilliant moves throughout his military career. But in the end, despite many victories, he wasn't able to consolidate and reap the spoils that would have been due to him.
Consolidation isn't sexy. They usually don't build statues to great consolidators. But it seems like the ability to consolidate, reinforce, and hold your gains and make them permanent is the key to lasting success.
When we look at the major political leaders of World War II, we see Roosevelt, Chamberlain, Churchill, Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin, Chiang Kai-Shek, Mao Tse-Tsung, and the Japanese faction nominally under Hirohito's control.
Interestingly, WWII is the story of successful consolidation rising in the world, and unsuccessful consolidation falling in the world.
Roosevelt, Stalin, Mao, and to a lesser extent Chiang were excellent consolidators, and the positions of their nations rose in the world. After making gains, they were able to fortify them, dismantle opposition, reinforce and benefit from the gains made.
The United States took over a great amount of military bases in the Lend-Lease agreement from Britain. Roosevelt additionally created new courts and agencies that catered to him, took broad powers over media, and embarrassed/denigrated/marginalized political opponents. He built infrastructure that would last and changed the scope of the American economy, consolidating personal, political, and national gains.
Stalin, likewise, capitalized on the state of emergency in Eastern Europe, and the Soviet Union was able to take control of everything between East Berlin and Moscow. Finland was barely able to fight off Soviet domination, but most of the previously powerful Eastern European forces had been worn out from fighting the fascists, and the Soviets were able to install themselves over those places. Stalin also broadened the scope of his secret police and cracked down on individual dissenters and organizations hostile to him.
Mao was one of the greatest consolidators in Chinese history. He had his moments of brilliance and was quite a talented military theorist (On Guerilla Warfare, by Mao, is worth reading), but he was fighting a defensive action almost nonstop from the start of his military and political career. Regardless of how you feel about the man's policies after taking power (I'm not a fan), it's worth noting he did an exceptional job consolidating. He achieved victory over the Nationalist Chinese largely by consolidating power successfully after the Japanese were defeated, seizing Japanese arms, supplies, and munitions. He also had lower losses and established better positions than the Nationalists when fighting the Japanese.
Chiang Kai-Shek, in his own way, was a good consolidator. Certainly, he made numerous mistakes. He's a great example of winning the vast majority of your battles, but losing on a decisive moment. He was an excellent commander in some ways, but he bungled the consolidation after defeating the Japanese, and the Communists were able to defeat him. Still, he picked the absolute best place he could have for retreat - Taiwan. Taiwan is a classically near-impossible-to-invade location. Completely surrounded by water, mountainous terrain, good logistical networks/roads through the mountains that would be able to be destroyed quickly during an invasion. Despite his huge blunder in losing Mainland China to the Communists, he was able to consolidate his forces in Taiwan intelligently, and the government, political, technological, cultural, and financial systems he helped architect live on to this day.
You can see the opposite among all of the defeated, but also some of the victors of World War II. Chamberlain is generally regarded as incompetent by historians - declaring war on Nazi Germany and then not attacking immediately was insane... they gave the Nazis first strike against Western Europe, which they did quite effectively when they ran the Maginot Line and conquered France.
Churchill, on the other hand, has his moments of brilliance... but he was a terrible consolidator. Unlike Roosevelt, Stalin, and Mao, he didn't have the same savvy consolidate-in-politics pulse of his fellow Allies. In the election immediately following WWII, Churchill was shocked to be voted out of office.
Likewise, the British lost more territory during and immediately following WWII than just about any victorious nation in history has ever lost in a war.
Looking quickly at the other WWII leaders, Francisco Franco and Charles de Gaulle were both good at consolidation and had moments of brilliance. Obviously, Hitler and Mussolini were unable to consolidate any of their gains, nor were the Japanese.
Truman is an interesting case - an excellent consolidator in some ways, but having tough shoes to fill following Roosevelt's popularity.
Following WWII, I'd give a nod to Deng Xiaoping and Lee Kuan Yew as the best consolidators in the post-WWII era. Both were able to take quite shaky circumstances they inherited and rapidly transform their economy and infrastructure while simultaneously consolidating their personal/political positions. Sometimes I wonder if it's coincidence or culture that two of the greatest consolidators of that era are Han Chinese - I could be persuaded either way, but I think Han culture tends to celebrate and push for intelligent consolidation more than Western culture.
In terms of American presidents, I'd point to Bill Clinton as the best American consolidator in recent history, with Eisenhower's presidency second. Clinton had the rare ability to build supports around good things that were happening, fix and tuneup some fundamental problems, balance the budget, and otherwise run a good presidency without trying to launch any insane initiatives.
It's sad, but quite likely that in 200 years, Bill Clinton won't be remembered very much. He doesn't have a legacy for conquest or massive initiative - again, we don't build statues of consolidators. But the Congress he oversaw was brilliant - as the internet started to emerge, they did a surprisingly good job with the initial legislation. Large protections for the internet and streamlined policies to keep things running well without too much interference. He cleaned up a number of flagging government programs, and the military campaigns conducted during the Clinton presidency tended to be short and effective. (I've got qualms with the Kosovo campaign as a significant mistake - joining one side of a civil war and not seeing it through to conclusion tends to make permanent enemies, which it did and now the Serbs hate America basically permanently. But if that's the biggest blunder and black mark on his record, that's a quite good presidency)
(His monetary policy arguably kept interest rates too low, the effects of which were seen in the stock and housing markets... he could and should have tightened up rates a bit late in his presidency, but again, not a tremendous flaw.)
I think about this often. Brilliance is brilliant, but brilliance without consolidation gives you empty entries in the historybooks. There's many examples of companies that led great innovations, but were unable to capitalize on them. Tesla was a brilliant scientist, but Edison was better at consolidation.
Of course, cultivate brilliance in your field if it appeals to you. But also think about how to consolidate after successes, so that the good changes and gains you've made become permanent.
An act of brilliance will get your foot in the door - consolidation is closing the sale.
Often the brilliance is a smart tactical move, coming up with a brilliant idea, or making contact with a big new potential client. This is the fun part. But consolidation of the tactical gains, implementing the idea or closing the client is often just hard work, subject to the deferrals, procrastinations and outright avoidance that hard work so often is.
A willingness to do this hard work after most of the psychological reward has already been enjoyed is what separates lasting success from fleeting glory. And I think you're right - in my experience, this willingness is most definitely a characteristic of Han Chinese culture.
Good questions from a reader -
There are some questions I want to ask you about the shogun era.
Why didn't the generals around Tokugawa Ieyasu aim for more power?
What were their end game?
Aaron was a friend and a brilliant mind. He was my only beta tester for Markdown back in 2004, and frequently offered keen feedback on my work here at DF. He had an enormous intellect — again, a brilliant mind — but also an enormous capacity for empathy. He was a great person. I’m dumbfounded and heartbroken. Good thoughts and best wishes to his family and those who were truly close to him.