“If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster and treat those two impostors just the same” (R. Kipling): why sowing the seeds of defeat in victory?


Didier Marlier

July 11, 2020

From Disruption to Engagement

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It is 312 BC and the Roman army understands with despair that they don’t have a single chance to escape the trap laid by their Samnites opponents. They are surrounded and blocked at the bottom of a valley and throw their weapon downs. Refusing to listen to his father’s advice on how to treat the Romans (“Make them no harm and send them free back to room as an appeasement gesture or massacre them all so as to weaken Rome), the young Samnite general, Pontius, decides to send them back after having “taught them a lesson”. The Proud Roman Army half naked, with hands tied would be forced to pass kneeling under a humiliating yoke and sent back… Rome reacted furiously and five years later, eliminated the Samnites.

Closer to us, Historians seem to agree that the roots of World War II were to be found in the humiliating conditions dictated to the losing party by “the winners”. Rancour, misery and nationalism soon emerged and we know the dramatic ending of that historical mistake, as my two grandfathers, both WWI decorated “War Heroes” used to call the Versailles Treaty.

Panic seized white South Africans when the man they had locked in for life for his anti-apartheid stand became their President in 1994. Fear of retaliation, vengeance, anti-white racism were all over. Instead, this is what is reported to have happened (movie Invictus) in the first day of Nelson Mandela’s tenure:

Nick McRoberts, one of our Partners, has developed an amazing course on Critical Thinking. The most difficult advice he gave me was to read the press, totally opposite to my ideas and values, just to understand where they came from and what mattered to them. A few days ago, I read an excellent article from The Economist, warning that some rare excesses in the Black Lives Matter movement (even though they are understandable), #Metoo or other justice based fantastic demonstrations that finally are rising, could in fact be counterproductive and sow the seeds for divisive, polarizing and provocative reactions leading to just the contrary of what these values based movement aim at. I had to agree and don’t you dare doubting the convictions and passion of a man whose family paid a heavy tribute during WWII: my grand uncle, President of the Bar, was assassinated in Mauthausen and my grand father was handed over by Belgian collaborators (no nation  should finger point another, we have rotten apples everywhere) to the occupying secret police. They were both Catholics and fell for saving Jewish people.

Bringing this topic to the business side, it is exactly the same I witness when Diversity is taken for a statistical and politically correct exercise. Soon cynics will openly complain to be subject of an unfair treatment for being straight white male mid-age and would provocatively suggest their colleagues had been promoted for their sexual orientation, colour of their skin or gender. The cause of Diversity is still nowhere in such organizations.

When, after new consultants come in and recommend to shift the power from regions to central, from geographies to business units (as another consultancy had recommended five years before), how does the power-shift take place? Do we have winners and losers? Do we receive “marching orders”? Do the winners respect the work we did to date or do they destroy in a humiliating move, all we had put so much time and intelligence to build?

When a company is taken over by another, shareholders are usually satisfied… But the workers of the target fear for their job, for the loss of a culture they were attached to. Politics and fear reflexes almost instantaneously emerge and the slightest novelty brought by the winner will be taken as a demonstration of arrogance.

My team and I are frequently called for Team coaching sessions, conflict resolution or post acquisition merger. We see, in critical thinking, conflict resolution and other facilitation of a tense dialogue that three steps are fundamental not to sow the seeds of a future defeat in victory:

  • Empathy: If you want to be listened to… listen first. As critical thinking teaches, seek to understand intellectually and emotionally why people say, think and do what they say, think and do! This step is about understanding (not agreeing) and demonstrating your efforts, respect and open mindedness. It is fundamental not to let emotions take over during this critical step. A useful tip here is also to try and identify the fears, values or principles at stake for the other party.
  • Assertiveness: Once you have pacified your counterpart, they may be ready, intellectually and emotionally, to try and understand your point and why it matters to you. When clarifying your points, avoid at all cost to trigger their fears, values or principles. It would just prove you were not listening… Don’t be hesitant. This is the moment where you show them that you intend to engage into an “adult-adult” dialogue. You may use “self-disclosure” in that step, helping the other party understand why that aspect matters to you and link it to your concerns, values or principles.
  • Unconditional Collaboration: Once both (or more) “sides” are convinced that they have been respectfully understood by the others, comes the time to be intelligent and creative: How to move forward in a way that respects everyone’s needs, ego, values… I call it “Unconditional Collaboration” as participants should be fully determined to finding a solution that respects both sides. Once negative emotions and prejudgements are eliminated, and that participants start assuming good intentions instead of bad, creatively working on finding a solution becomes a wonderful intellectual challenge.

I believe that when leaders such as us all practice those behaviours, amazing solutions emerge and the worse enemies may become our allies. And look here below when one man and his friends decide to act along such principles in a violent scene.


  1. Pat Kennedy

    Thanks for your wise advice. Beautiful piece in all respects.

    • Didier Marlier

      Thank you, dear Pat. When the feedback comes from such an experienced and respected ex-CEO and actual Board member, it means a lot! Thank you!!!

  2. Arthur Carr

    Saw Elon Musk Q2 print of quotes and the had never heard the quote you so excellently explained. Hugely appreciated and will reference in my business and personal dealings going forward for life. Thank You for taking your time to enlighten others.

    • Didier Marlier

      Thank you,dear Arthur… Not sure how to take this? Why should Elon Musk bother about my writings? I’d advise him to continue doing what he does best.

      But should you mean what you write, I’ll be prouder for this to be shown by you to your friends and business circle than to Elon Musk himself:)

      Have a good week-end


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