winning while losing
History often tells a different story than the narrative we create in the moment.
Last week, I had dinner with Ben Schreiner at his home in Camden, South Carolina. Ben has gray hair and the strong chin line of a 20-year-old football player. We stood on the porch of his 1770’s home, affectionally named “Holly Hedge.”
Ben pointed to the far end of his property: “Do you see that water over there?” I looked across his beautiful English garden to where it stepped down into a swamp. He continued, “In the Revolutionary War, Nathanael Greene placed his troops at the edge of the water. Americans were attacked RIGHT HERE at the Battle of Hobkirk’s Hill.”
Early on the morning of April 25, 1781, British forces attacked a sleeping and unprepared American army.
Maj. Gen. Greene quickly ordered his men to fall in line. But the size of the British army proved too much. After hours of fighting, Greene narrowly escaped with his army.
The result was the death of 270 American troops, handing the British another victory.
Greene was George Washington’s most trusted general: “A Gentleman in whom I place the most entire confidence,” Washington said.
Yet, in the southern theater of the Revolutionary War, Greene lost battle after battle.
- At Guilford Courthouse, Gen. Cornwallis killed 1,300 of Greene’s men.
- At Eutaw Springs, another 500 Americans died.
- And where we stood, at Hobkirk’s Hill, the British handed Greene another defeat.
I asked my host, “How is Nathanael Greene considered one of the greatest leaders in American history when he lost so much? It sounds like we have it all wrong.”
Ben got a serious look on his face. He said, “Yes. Greene lost a lot of battles. But that’s not the measure of a great general. Greene’s losses dealt significant blows to the British troops. He cut off supply chains. He extracted a high cost in every fight. And most importantly, he survived and continued to fight. Ultimately, it was Greene’s military strategy that pushed Cornwallis into Yorktown.”
How often are we concerned about the optics of winning every battle, instead of a diligent focus on winning the war?
Sometimes it’s more important to survive and advance than focus all your effort on short-term wins. This is a cutting-edge mathematical concept called ergodicity.
Ergodicity covers the importance of individual wins based on duration.
The 2011 Chicago Bulls are an example.
The Bulls were the best team in basketball that year. Led by their MVP phenom, Derrick Rose, the Bulls won 75% of their games.
In the first game of the playoffs, with the Bulls up 12 points with one minute left, Derrick Rose tore his ACL. The Bulls went on to win the game.
But a week later, the best team in basketball was eliminated in the first round of the playoffs.
The lesson was clear: duration changes the impact of individual games. What’s best to win a game is not what’s best to win the playoffs.
The team that won the NBA championship that year stayed healthy. They survived.
Does that mean we shouldn’t focus on short-term wins? Of course not. But very few victories in life result from a single, isolated win. They result from ergodicity.
Maj Gen. Greene was a master of ergodicity. He survived. He maintained a long-term strategy. The result? Cornwallis was maneuvered to Yorktown, where he was trapped and America won its independence.
What are we focused on right now? Is it the battle? Or is it the war?