During the American Civil War there was one Confederate general that the Union general, and future President, Ulysees S Grant truly feared – Lieutenant General Nathan Bedford Forrest. Forrest was an unusual and controversial figure. Raised in poverty and with limited formal education, by the time the Civil War began he had become wealthy as a slave trader and plantation owner. He joined the Confederate Army as a private, but his leadership skills and personal wealth led to a rapid rise through the ranks.

Commanding various brigades and regiments, Forrest delivered a series of battle victories – some big and some small – that were based on his ability to move faster, much faster, than his opponents. Although most of his battles were fought on foot, his troops moved rapidly between battle locations on horse, massively outpacing his enemy’s infantry movements, which were, quite literally, pedestrian. As a result, Forrest was able to disrupt supply chains, launch fast-moving attacks against fragmented defences, and generally become a constant source of frustration and debilitation to the Union forces.

As Forrest himself explained, the secret of his success was “to git thar fust with the most men” and these principles, which had also previously led Napoleon to success across Europe, were subsequently followed by many 20th century generals, including Rommel, Patton and even Mao Zedong, who all focused on speed, agility and the ability to shock and disrupt opposing forces, rather than the more traditional, attrition-centred approach.

Forrest did not have technically superior fighters under his command. In fact, he was given a series of ‘green’ regiments to lead. And neither did he benefit from better weaponry and equipment. Forrest’s only advantage was the speed at which he was able to lead his army to the site of battle, carry out a rapid strike, and then move onto the next objective.

How would Nathan Bedford Forrest fare in Silicon Valley in the twenty-first century? And what can you learn from his approach and apply to your organisation?

© Stuart Cross 2013. All rights reserved.