The most legendary fighter pilot to ever walk the face of the earth knew what it took to thrive in the chaos and uncertainty of war. His life is one of the greatest largely untold stories of the last century.
This man’s name was John Boyd. But John Boyd went by many names in his life. During his time as the premier instructor at the Air Force Fighter Weapons School at Nellis (the Navy later copied this school and named it “Top Gun”) he was known as “40 Second Boyd” because he never lost a single dogfight and would take less than 40 seconds to defeat any opponent.Pilots from around the globe flew to Nellis to challenge him. All went home defeated.
Later, when Boyd would go on to confront the entire Air Force establishment, and fundamentally change the way the United States military fights and wins wars he would earn the nickname “The Mad Major.” He literally wrote the book on air-to-air combat with his Aerial Attack Study, combined the concept of entropy from physics to create the “Energy Maneuverability” theory that transformed how militaries around the world evaluate aircraft performance. Boyd is known as the father of the F15, F16 and (along with Pierre Sprey) the A10 Warthog.
That was just Boyd’s warm up act. Fed up with military bureaucracy he retired and immersed himself in a massive deep dive of everything from psychology, to philosophy, to creativity and much more. Boyd earned his final nickname “Ghengis John” when he merged the knowledge across all of these disciplines — along with a complete study of every recorded conflict in human history — to formulate a theory of war called “Patterns of Conflict.”Patterns transformed US warfighting doctrine, reshaped the US Marine Corps, and was the impetus behind one of the most devastating and rapid military campaigns in military history — the 100 hour allied victory in The Gulf War.
In short, John Boyd was a man of many talents. The lessons Boyd discovered scorching through the sky at the speed of sound are the tools that will make you someone who thrives in a chaotic and uncertain world, too.
The Biggest Lessons From Studying Every Major Conflict in Recorded History
Patterns of conflict was a massive undertaking — so much so that Boyd “condensed” these learnings into a 14 hour briefing and refused to give the briefing to anyone who wouldn’t sit through all 14 hours. Once being ordered by a General to give him a shortened briefing, Boyd told the General to “get fucked.” That General never got to see Patterns of Conflict.
There were several core ideas within Patterns. You’re probably not fighting a war anytime soon (if you are — you can get the full slides of the briefing here, though without Boyd delivering them, they are missing a lot of context) so I’ll spare you the 14 hours and give you a few key ideas below.
Here were the key themes of Patterns of Conflict:
· Fluidity of Action
· Strength Against Weakness
· Attack with Multiple Thrusts
· The Power of Ambiguity
These are the major commonalities Boyd discovered when studying every successful military campaign in recorded history — especially with a focus on examining situations where an outnumbered or disadvantaged army won the engagement.
These principles form the core of the concept of “Maneuver Warfare” which Boyd was a staunch advocate of. These are the same themes that led to the stunningly rapid US victory in the Gulf War.
The key idea of these principles is to disorient and confuse your enemy, to cause them to unravel before you even engage in combat.
That’s all well and good and believe me I love a good military history as much as anyone (after all I did read Boyd’s massive biography) — but what I really care about is applying these principles to my life and business.
After all, business and war are very different. While in warfighting the idea is to destroy the enemy, in business that is not always possible and you also have to proactively build your own business and grow your sales.
There is a major shared thread between these two domains however. A thread that, once pulled, can lead us some major insights into how we can use the lessons of Genghis John to thrive in chaos and uncertainty.
How To Thrive In Chaos, Like a Fighter Pilot
This common thread, between the military and business, is that in both cases groups of people are working together under immense pressure and stress to try and create results.
Looking under the hood at some of the greatest military victories of all time, Boyd uncovered several key ideas around organizing people in tough situations that are directly applicable to business and life. These are the cornerstone of thriving under uncertainty.
Fight The Enemy — Not The Terrain
Boyd’s most well known idea is the concept of the “OODA” loop. OODA Loop stands for Observe, Orient, Decide, Act. This is framework designed to explain the process of collecting information, interpreting it, deciding what to do with it, and then taking action.
Much has been written about the OODA loop (here’s a great in-depth explanation of it) but I want to focus on one particular aspect, the piece that Boyd thought was the most important — Orientation.
It’s easy to skip over Orientation or think it’s essentially the same as Observation. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Orientation is about your relationship to reality and the observations you’re seeing.
Orientation is about confronting your cognitive biases, your ego, and your own limited perception of the world — peeling back those layers so you can get a clear picture of reality as it truly is, not as you wish it to be.
In tough, confusing and uncertain situations we often get stuck — frozen in what was — not accepting things as they are because we don’t like them or we wish that they were different.
This is one of the most devastatingly sinister cognitive biases and can put you in serious jeopardy.
Boyd sums this up beautifully with a simple quote:
“Fight the enemy, not the terrain.” — Col. John Boyd
Don’t get stuck in your conceptions of what “should” be — don’t fight the terrain — fight the enemy as they are, not as you want them to be.
This is a lesson not only uncovered in Boyd’s deep dive into human conflict and the path to victory, but shared by world champions and financial traders.
World champion martial artist and international chess master Josh Waitzkin sums this idea up powerfully as well:
“While I learned with open pores — no ego in the way — it seemed that many other students were frozen in place, repeating their errors over and over, unable to improve because of a fear of releasing old habits. When [our teacher] made suggestions, they would explain their thinking in an attempt to justify themselves. They were locked up by the need to be correct…[They] got stuck, like the guys doing [martial arts] who don’t learn from their mistakes and practice with a desperate need to win, to be right, to have everything under control. This ultimately cripples growth.” — Josh Waitzkin, The Art of Learning
If we fail to properly orient ourselves — to see our own weaknesses, biases, flaws in our thinking and much more, we prevent ourselves from growth and we invite disaster.
Trader Jim Paul describes the same danger of getting stuck in your ego — and losing sight of the best course of action — in his book “What I Learned Losing a Million Dollars”:
“Taking either success or failure personally means, by definition, that your ego has become involved and you are in jeopardy of incurring losses due to psychological factors. Having tied your self-worth to the vicissitudes of factors beyond your control, you will be primarily concerned with protecting your ego rather than trying to determine the appropriate course of action.”- Jim Paul
You must be aware of your Orientation and consciously work to sweep away ego distortions and cognitive biases so that you can get a crystal clear picture of reality.
A tool like Charlie Munger’s Psychology of Misjudgment (a list of mental models that cause people to make bad decisions) is an excellent starting place for this. Once you’ve done that it’s often easy to Decide what to do and Act on it.
Agility & Rapid Tempo
Boyd constantly preached the importance of “Agility.” It’s critical to understand that Agility does not mean speed, but rather speed of decision-making.
The ability to rapidly move through “decision cycles” (Boyd’s OODA Loops) is what distinguished victory from defeat.
Here’s how Boyd himself put it:
“In order to win, we should operate at a faster tempo or rhythm than our adversaries — or, better yet, get inside [the] adversary’s Observation-Orientation-Decision-Action time cycle or loop … Such activity will make us appear ambiguous (unpredictable) thereby generate confusion and disorder among our adversaries — since our adversaries will be unable to generate mental images or pictures that agree with the menacing, as well as faster transient rhythm or patterns, they are competing against.” — Col. John Boyd
This quote also underscores the power and importance of building clear and accurate mental models, which reinforces our need to Orient properly.
If you’re working to grow and improve yourself — the faster you can run through decision cycles (OODA Loops) and break away from the biases and errors that will keep you frozen in place, the faster you will grow. This rapid iteration and execution of OODA loops is how you see some people quickly advance while others seem to be stuck in place.
In life and business — this principle applies to both competitive threats and opportunities. The more rapidly you can Orient yourself to what’s really true, accurately collect information about the problem, the market, your product, etc — the faster you can make the correct decision.
Over time this slightly incremental speed advantage generates massive results. Without a rapid decision-making and analysis tempo, you’re leaving yourself at risk for external forces (competitors, markets, etc) to move away from where you think they are — and your understanding of those dynamics will be flawed and incomplete, leading to a poor Orientation.
Pronounced “Shh-where-punked” — the notion of Schwerpunkt is the single most important organizational principle to come out of Boyds work in Patterns. Schwerpunkt is a vital tool for working with others and thriving under chaos and uncertainty.
Schwerpunk is one of those words that doesn’t fully translate from German to English. The meaning is rich with an idea that a single definition cannot express. The definition of Schwerpunkt is something like center of gravity, crucial focal point, point of the main effort, key goal, or commander’s intent.
This guiding principle explains another one of the most devastating military campaigns in recent history — the Blitzkrieg of WW2. German forces operated under a largely decentralized decision-making structure that was imbued with mutual trust and the ability for unit commanders in the field to make the key decisions — in alignment with the overall Schwerpunkt of the campaign.
This focus on decentralized organizational structures — where the core goal, key focus, and commander’s intent (aka Schwerpunkt) is communicated and understood by everyone — is a cornerstone of the most successful military campaigns in history.
When you let decisions happen on the “front lines” — you’re empowering people to make decisions not only much more rapidly but with much more accurate and real time information.
More importantly for you and me — it’s also a highly effect management tactic and organizational structure for modern day organizations.
Books like The Outsiders have studied companies that massively outperform over a long period of time and the concept of a highly decentralized organization that pushes decision-making to the lowest level possible is one of the cornerstones of those businesses. Warren Buffet’s Berkshire Hathaway is a classic example of a highly decentralized company.
You Can Become Someone Who Thrives In Chaos and Uncertainty
The powerful toolkit of Orientation, Agility, and Schwerpunkt will allow you to thrive in any chaotic or uncertain environments. These ideas are literally battle tested in the most unforgiving crucible imaginable — war.
Boyd explains how all these concepts fit together neatly and why they are so powerful for thriving under adversity and under stressful and chaotic situations.
“War is ever changing, and men are ever fallible” -Col. John Boyd
I like to adjust that slightly to:
“Life & Business are ever changing, and people are ever fallible.”
Cognitive biases and the inherent biological limits of the human brainconstantly cause people to make mistakes. If you are properly orienting yourself, not getting frozen in your past conceptions of reality, and rapidly iterating through your decision-cycles — you will be running circles around your competition and aligned with market demand and expectations — setting yourself up for success.
John Boyd was the ultimate bad ass. He lived an incredible life, fought in three wars and transformed the way our military fights and wins.
The lessons Boyd uncovered in Patterns have the power to transform you into someone who thrives under chaotic, uncertain and adverse conditions.
As Boyd would say, what are you waiting for, Tiger?
Learning More About Boyd
If you want to learn more about Boyd here are a few resources.
I also highly suggest reading his Biography “John Boyd The Fighter Pilot Who Changed The Art of War”
If you want to dig into the source material, here is a catalogue of all of Boyd’s work in a military archive.
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