From ‘dreams and deeds’ to ‘skin in the game’… and sideline commentators


During the first crusade, in the year 1099, an important event took place outside the walls of Jerusalem, which we can take note of today. The Crusaders had just captured Antioch (the first real victory of the Crusades) and were now gathering outside Jerusalem, preparing to capture the Holy City for Christianity.

According to legend, they encountered a hermit there who told them that he had a vision about the invasion of Jerusalem. He pleaded with them not to prepare for the invasion as they intended to do, but to attack the city summarily.

Encouraged by this vision, the crusaders agreed and stormed the city. However, the attack was easily repulsed, resulting in tremendous losses for the Christians. The princes called a halt, pleaded that they could not be so reckless and insisted that they do better planning and get their logistics in order. To take Jerusalem, they needed ladders, slingshots, and siege tools, but they didn’t even have enough wood to build them with.

These events remind one of the strategist John Lewis Gaddis’s analysis of the Greco-Persian War. The Persian king, Xerxes, had big dreams. He wanted to conquer the whole world and elevate himself to a divine figure. But, writes Gaddis, from a strategic point of view there is a simple reason why Xerxes did not succeed in his aim. This is more or less the same reason why the first attempt to conquer Jerusalem failed…

Dreams and deeds

Xerxes’ problem was that his actions were not sufficient to fulfill his dreams. His “can” was not sufficient to make his “want” happen. That’s why Gaddis says that when we talk about strategy, we need to be careful about getting carried away by big dreams. Dreaming is free, but it does no good to set ambitious goals if the means at your disposal do not enable you to realize them. That’s why Gaddis is signing up On Grand Strategy:

Xerxes had brought everything with him across the Hellespont except a grand strategy: if his aspirations were his capabilities, why bother to align them? He came to know scarcity only after the land, the sea, the weather, the Greeks, and their oracle introduced it to him. Believing himself strong in all respects, he held none in reserve: when one failed, others followed.”

He further explains:

Xerxes failed… to establish a proper relationship between his ends and his means. Because ends exist only in the imagination, they can be infinite: a throne on the moon, perhaps, with a great view. Means, though, are stubbornly finite: they’re boots on the ground, ships in the sea, and the bodies required to fill them. Ends and means have to connect if anything is to happen. They’re never, however, interchangeable.”

That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t dream big. We have to keep dreaming big, and we can even keep talking about our big dreams. However, we must realize that big dreams only remain dreams if they are not connected to a practical, achievable strategy. The feasibility of a strategy is not measured by the magnitude of the objective, but by the operational ability to implement it.

Skin in the game

This is one of the reasons why today it is so easy to stand on the sidelines and comment. A sideline commentator has not, as Nassim Taleb puts it, skin in the game (skin in the game) not. About skin in the game to have, that is, to be in the heat of battle is to take risks when making decisions.

Think, for example, of the rugby captain who, in the heat of the battle, decides to go and try to score a try rather than kick the posts. These are make-or-break decisions, and if you made the wrong decision you have to live with it. The sideline commentator has the convenience of first seeing if the plan works and then, if it doesn’t work out, criticizing the players on the field as if he would do it better.

Jan Smuts mocked fringe commentators when he addressed the British Parliament in 1942 on the state of affairs in the Second World War. “Let me reassure you,” he remarked teasingly, “I am not going to discuss the future offensive strategy for the war now. The amateur strategists can do this with more freedom and less responsibility.” With that he naturally argued that a passive spectator has much more freedom to say whatever he thinks, especially because he does not take action and therefore does not have to live with the consequences of his statements.

That observation is as true today as it was then. It is easy for someone with a YouTube channel or a Facebook page to make videos in which he criticizes everything that everyone around him does with great enthusiasm. It is also quite easy to present this kind of criticism in a way that will touch the viewers’ heartstrings. All you have to do is present yourself as extremely principled and then color your argument with slogans such as “now or never”, “today we draw the line” and “it’s about the principle”.

This is all well and good, but someone who organizes a fundraiser for the local school adds much more value to the community than someone who believes that your value is measured by “likes” and “shares”.

How now made?

We must continue to dream big, but when we set ourselves goals, we must remember that our dreams can only be realized through actions, and that our actions must be carried by the means at our disposal… and means are limited. It does not help to declare that the crusaders were cowards when they did not summarily storm the walls of Jerusalem, when they did not even have the equipment to carry out the battle. It does no good to challenge Sparta if the means at your disposal and the supply lines to carry them out are not ready.

Similarly, it does not help, for example, to declare that secession is the solution for Afrikaners, and to criticize everything that lives and works that does not preach secession, if there is not a significant territory where Afrikaners form the majority and for all practical purposes already govern themselves not.

If we really want to make a difference, we will have to realize that we operate within a particular context, and that our plans must speak to the context. The purpose of a plan is to connect a dream to reality. Big dreams are all well and good, but they don’t help if our plans can’t bring them to fruition.

It doesn’t help to storm the city wall simply because you dreamed it was a good idea. If you have skin in the game, you just have to make sure that your actions speak to your dreams, and that you have the means to make them come true.