On the Art of Sales and Prussian Generals

Reading Stephen Bungay’s The Art of Action: Leadership that Closes Gaps, between Plans, Actions and Results is the latest book I have picked up on a path I have long been travelling. That path is about leadership and the ability to command in such a way as to encourage incredibly high levels of individual initiative in achieving goals and objectives.

The dozens of books and articles I have read have a common history stemming out of the Prussian military system of the 19th Century (of all things), and all lead back, in one way or another, to von Moltke (pictured above).

Bungay’s book sent me back to On the German Art of War (Truppenfuhrung) dated 1933. The manual was designed to contain the principles for command, as well as the behaviors of the field soldier.

The Prussians favored principles that could be followed and minimal orders, allowing the greatest flexibility in achieving objectives and individual initiative (which is what accounts for the Germans being an incredibly effective force against a larger opponent with far greater resources, by most accounts each German soldier being worth 2.5 allied soldiers).

The following 15 statements from the introduction were about warfare. I changed the words to reflect sales and selling, and I changed the words indicating war or danger to challenges.

These statements, in my opinion, reflect the reality of sales and selling in a highly competitive and rapidly changing environment. Read them and decide for yourself if you believe them to be true and relevant.

Fifteen Principles

  1. Sales is an art, a free and creative activity founded on scientific principles. It makes the very highest demands on the human personality.

  2. The conduct of sales is subject to continual development. New tools dictate ever-changing forms. Their appearance must be anticipated and their influence evaluated. Then they must be placed into service quickly.

  3. Selling situations are of an unlimited variety. They change frequently and suddenly and can seldom be assessed in advance. Incalculable elements often have a decisive influence. One’s own will is pitted against the independent will of competitors. Friction and errors are daily occurrences.

  4. Lessons in the conduct of sales cannot be exhaustively compiled in the form of regulations. The principles enunciated must be applied in accordance with the situation. Simple actions, logically carried out, will most surely lead to the objective.

  5. Selling subjects the individual to the most severe tests of his spiritual and physical endurance. For this reason, character counts more in sales than does intellect. Many who distinguish themselves in sales remain unnoticed in other endeavors.

  6. The command of a sales force and its subordinate units requires leaders capable of judgment, with clear vision and foresight, and the ability to make independent and decisive decisions and carry them out unwaveringly and positively. Such leaders must be impervious to the changes in the fortunes of sales and possess full awareness of the high degree of responsibility placed on their shoulders.

  7. A sales manager is in every sense a leader and a teacher. In addition to his knowledge of people and his sense of justice, he must be distinguished by superior knowledge and experience, by moral excellence, by self-discipline, and by high courage.

  8. The example and personal bearing of sales managers and others who are responsible for leadership has a decisive effect on the troops. The leader, who in the face of challenges displays coolness, decisiveness, and courage, carries his sales force with him. He must also win their affections and earn their trust through his understanding of their feelings, their way of thinking, and through his selfless care for them. Mutual trust is the surest foundation for discipline in times of need and challenge.

  9. Every sales leader in every situation must exert himself totally and not avoid responsibility. Willingness to accept responsibility is the most important quality of a leader. It should not, however, be based upon individualism without consideration of the whole, nor used as a justification for failure to carry out orders where seeming to know better may affect obedience. Independence of spirit must not become arbitrariness. By contrast, independence of action within acceptable boundaries is the key to great success.

  10. The decisive factor, despite tools and technologies, is the value of the individual salesperson. The wider his experience in sales, the greater his importance. The emptiness of the sales opportunity requires salespeople who can think and act independently, who can make calculated decisive, and daring use of every situation, and who understand that victory depends on the individual. Training, physical fitness, selflessness, determination, self-confidence, and daring equip a salesperson to master the most difficult situations.

  11. The caliber of a leader and the sales force determines their sales effectiveness, which is augmented by the quantity, care, and maintenance of their tools and technologies. Superior effectiveness can compensate for inferior numbers. The greater this quality, the greater the force and mobility in selling. Superior leadership and superior sales force readiness are guaranteed conditions for victory.

  12. Sales leaders must live with their sales force and share the challenges, their joys and sorrows. Only thus can they acquire a first-hand knowledge of their sales capabilities and the needs of their sales force. The individual is part of the whole and is not only responsible for himself alone, but also for his peers. He who is capable for more than the others, who can achieve more, must guide the inexperienced and the weak. Out of such foundation grows genuine comradeship, which is as important between the leaders and the sales force as it is among the sales force itself.

  13. Sales forces that are only superficially held together, not bonded by long training and discipline, easily fail in moments of great challenges and under the pressure of unexpected events. From the very beginning of a sales campaign, therefore, great importance must be attached to creating and maintaining inner strength and to the discipline of training units. It is the duty of every sales manager to immediately and with any means at her disposal—even the most severe—against a breakdown in discipline or acts of dissension or negative influences. Discipline is the backbone of a sales force, and its maintenance is in the best interest of all.

  14. The readiness and strength of unites must be capable of meeting the highest demands in decisive moments. The sales leader who needlessly tires his unit jeopardizes success and is responsible for the consequences. The forces deployed in sales must be committed in proportion to the objective. Orders that are impossible to execute will reduce confidence in the leader and damage morale.

  15. Every person, from the newest salesperson upward, must be required at all times and in all situations to commit his whole mental, spiritual, and physical strength. Only in this way will the full force of a unit be brought to bear in decisive action. Only thus will people develop, who will in the hour of challenges maintain their courage and decisiveness and carry their weaker comrades with them to achieve deeds of daring.

  16. The first criterion in sales remains decisive action. Everyone, from the highest sales leader down to the newest salesperson, must constantly be aware that inaction and neglect incriminate him more severely than any error in the choice of means.

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