Size matters – or does it?

The army, the business, the political party, the sports team with the most resources is usually expected to win in confrontations. But history has shown us countless times that this is not always the case. One underappreciated example of a battle where an army beat a larger, better trained and resourced army was The Battle of Cannae.

The Battle of Cannae happened on August 2, 216 BC in southeast Italy near the ancient village of Cannae, between Carthaginian forces led by Hannibal Barca and Roman forces led by Lucius Aemilius Paullus and Gaius Terentius Varro.

The Roman army of 90,000 well-trained soldiers was decimated by the smaller Carthaginian army of some 50,000 soldiers. It was the darkest day for the Romans in ancient history. General (later President) Dwight Eisenhower said of the battle:

“every ground commander seeks the battle of annihilation; so far as conditions permit, he tries to duplicate the classical example of Cannae.”

This 7 minute video gives a good summary of the battle.

Hannibal was successful in defeating the Roman army because he was able to identify his adversary’s biggest weaknesses. The Roman army was inflexible and slow to react. The Roman army was much larger, highly trained and well armed, however most of their military tactics were designed for a head-on confrontation, preferably on a flat terrain, a show of muscle and might. Hannibal drew the Roman army into believing that this would be one such battle, then sprung his trap.

Hannibal was not only a shrewd strategist, but an outstanding leader. His army included African, Iberian and Celtic soldiers and mercenaries. Yet not only did he manage to get them to work together and be disciplined in the execution of his plan, but he knew how to maximise their diverse skills and strengths. When one succeeds in harnessing diversity and unleashing the potential of a diverse team, the results can be spectacular.

We can also learn from Hannibal’s mistakes. His biggest mistake or failure was logistical; with the correct logistical planning, he may well have continued marching onto Rome and captured it, as the Romans believed he would do (in fact in later years, when Roman parents wanted to scare their children into obedience they would tell them “Hannibal ad portas” – Hannibal is at the gates).

Hannibal had many military successes, and his exploits have much to teach all those whose skill set requires leadership and strategic skills.

Perhaps the biggest lesson we can draw from this particular battle is that size or resources are not necessarily the only determinants of the outcome of a confrontation.

The greatest resource for success is actually located between our two ears.