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Vol. 10, No. 3
(626) 350-1500 Ext 102  

©2004, 2013 William A. Cohen, PhD 

Seize the Initiative and Keep It 

Nothing happens until you make it happen, until you take action. Putting things off until “you can get around to it” or until conditions are perfect almost always results in failure. W. Clement Stone, who rose from poverty to build an international insurance company worth hundreds of millions of dollars, asserted that to overcome procrastination, you need only say these three words to yourself, and then act on them: “Do it now!”

Is it any wonder that the rewards in industry, in any organization, go to those who “show initiative”? Those who sit around waiting for something to happen or for someone else to tell them what to do are rarely successful. The same is true for the strategist who looks to the competition to dictate his own actions. General George S. Patton said: “I don’t care what the enemy intends to do. I only care about what I intend to do.” Patton knew that taking the initiative is always critical for any strategy.
Failing to seize the initiative is a crucial mistake, especially in competitive situations. No matter how well developed your ability to counter the actions of competitors, there is no way that you can win by simply defending against a competitor’s actions. This concept can be clearly seen in face-to-face sport competitions such as boxing, karate, or tennis. A competitor initiates an attack which must be avoided or deflected. But as soon as a defensive maneuver is completed, the defender must seek an opening through which to initiate a counterattack.
Of course, the initiative need not be a physical one. The principle of seizing the initiative places a premium on intellectual ideas as well as physical action. In fact, an intellectual initiative can sometimes obviate the need for direct physical confrontations. By maintaining the initiative, you are able to dominate the situation and to control the time and place of necessary actions, which will lead to attaining your goals and succeeding in your strategy.

Gain the Advantage by Taking Action

Henri de Jomini was a great Swiss military strategist of Napoleonic times. He started his career as a banker, but ultimately became a general, first in the French Army, and later in the Russian Army.
Jomini wrote one of the classic books on strategy, The Art of War. Today, when one thinks of the foremost western war strategist, Carl von Clausewitz probably comes to mind. However, this was not always so. In the 19th century, Jomini was far more influential than his German contemporary, Clausewitz. During our own Civil War, it was said that generals of both the North and South rode into battle with two books in their saddlebags: The Holy Bible and Jomini’s The Art of War.
Jomini pointed out that the competitor taking the initiative has the great advantage because he can strike a blow at a point of his selection, whereas the competitor acting on the defensive must defend everywhere and is often taken unawares and must always regulate his movements according to the actions of his adversary.
Keep in mind, however, that there are two parts to this second essential principle which must be mastered. First you must gain the initiative; then you must keep the initiative until you attain your objective. Neither is easy. Sometimes you slip up and allow a competitor to take the initiative. This puts you in a reactive mode. Think of the boxer who must defend himself after being struck first. When this initial blow is unexpected, it can be devastating and can put you at an extreme disadvantage. But you must take action to regain the initiative or, like the boxer, you’ll find yourself down for the count.

The Attack on Pearl Harbor

There is probably no better example to demonstrate the overall concepts involved in the principle of seizing the initiative than the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and its aftermath. Much has been written about the events of December 7, 1941. Let’s look at the attack from a strategy viewpoint.
The Japanese felt that their future was in control of the Pacific Rim and in dominating Asia. To reach these objectives, Japan needed resources and the acquiescence of the United States. It was clear that the U.S. would neither help to provide these resources nor agree to Japanese domination of Asia.
In 1941, the U.S. was unprepared for war and our armed forces ranked eighteenth in size in the world. The U.S. economy was basically still on a peacetime footing and the country had just begun to recover from a devastating depression. Still, the Japanese knew that America was potentially far more powerful and possessed a strong Pacific fleet that could be a threat to their plans.
The Japanese did not think the U.S. could be beaten in a fight to the finish. Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, Commander in Chief of Japan’s Combined Fleet, had studied at Harvard University and later served as naval attaché in the United States. As a result, he was well acquainted with the U.S. and Americans. He knew that the U.S. could not be defeated in any conventional sense, nor by any conventional strategy. He felt the only hope for success was to keep the U.S. from acting until the Japanese actually controlled the resources they needed and had conquered the territories they coveted. Yamamoto said, “If we can destroy the American fleet, for six months, I will run wild and the Americans cannot stop me. However, if we fail to succeed to either destroy the American fleet or in our offensive once the war has started, all we will have succeeded in doing is to awaken a sleeping giant.”
So the concept was to cripple the U.S. fleet and to simultaneously launch offensives all over Asia. The Japanese would gain immediate access to oil, rubber, and other assets it needed to further supply its war machine. By the time the U.S. had recovered six months or more later, the Japanese would be in total control and would have fortified their conquests. Meanwhile the U.S. would be facing problems from Japan’s axis partners, Germany and Italy. Japan would propose peace in the Pacific on terms that the U.S. could not refuse. That was the plan.

A Strategy Based on Initiative and a Surprise Attack

To achieve its objective Japan formulated a strategy based on seizing the initiative. The Japanese would strike first. To maintain the element of surprise, the attack fleet was to gain its position to strike the main U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor in secret. Moreover, it would launch the first wave of aircraft making up the strike force even before war was declared, although the strike was timed so that a declaration of war was to be delivered in Washington before the first bomb fell. However, due to problems with decoding the message at the Japanese embassy in Washington, this didn’t happen and the attack came first.
The Japanese attack was devastating. Most of the U.S. Pacific fleet was sunk, and several thousand sailors, soldiers, Marines, and airmen were killed. At the same time, the Japanese launched surprise offenses in the Philippines, Malaya, Singapore, and all over the Pacific. Japan had clearly seized the initiative, and the U.S. was at an extreme disadvantage. However, as strange as it may seem to say, the U.S. Navy got very lucky on that infamous day. The Pacific Fleet’s three aircraft carriers were not in port and therefore remained unscathed.

Regaining the Initiative

When a disaster as significant as the Pearl Harbor attack gives “a competitor” such a tremendous advantage, regaining the initiative is both extremely important and extremely difficult. The United States was able to do so by a rare combination of tremendous effort, courage, luck, and, of course, a good strategy.
The U.S. was not an easy enemy, despite its weakened state and the courage and determination of the Japanese. Certain key factors were going against the Japanese and their hopes for maintaining the initiative gained with the attack on Pearl Harbor.
First, while ultimately successful for the Japanese, the Philippine campaign took more than twice as long and far more resources than planned.
Secondly, as mentioned above, the U.S. aircraft carriers had survived the assault at Pearl Harbor. The loss of U.S. battleships forced the U.S. Navy to fight in a new way: with aircraft carriers. Only four months after the attack, a joint U.S. Navy – Army task force got close enough to the Japanese mainland to successfully launch U.S. Army (the U.S. Air Force did not exist yet) B-25 bombers. The airplanes, commanded by Lieutenant Colonel (later General) Jimmy Doolittle, attacked Tokyo and several other major Japanese cities. These raids did little real damage. However, the fact that the U.S. was able to successfully carry out such an attack at all forced the Japanese to withdraw forces for homeland defense. Also, this was a major blow to Japanese morale, at the same time that it boosted U.S. morale.
Third and most significantly, U.S. intelligence experts had broken the Japanese naval code. The Americans knew what the Japanese were doing and planning, but the reverse was not true.

The U.S. Recaptures the Initiative

The Japanese still had the initiative seven months after Pearl Harbor, in June of 1942. Rear Admiral Chester W. Nimitz had been given command of the U.S. Pacific Fleet. His adversary vastly outnumbered him. Admiral Yamamoto had 160 war vessels available. Nimitz only about 20. In this situation, few could blame him for some sort of a hit-and-run campaign. However, Chester Nimitz was a fighter, and he knew that he must regain the initiative from the Japanese. This required that he draw the Japanese fleet into battle and defeat it. He decided to capitalize on his knowledge of Japanese intentions provided by being able to read their secret orders.
Meanwhile, Admiral Yamamoto had decided to launch a major attack to capture Midway Island. The conquest of Midway had not been in the original Japanese war plan. However, despite the setbacks noted earlier, overall the Japanese offenses had met their objectives. Capturing Midway would allow the Japanese to harass and perhaps even capture Hawaii. Yamamoto thought that luring the American fleet to a major battle at Midway could provide the knockout punch to finish it off completely.
Yamamoto knew he had a tremendous numerical superiority as compared to his American adversary. He also was told that American carriers were in no position to participate in the battle.
On the other side, Nimitiz knew what the Japanese were up to, plus he knew things his adversary did not know. Due to his foreknowledge, not only would he be able to get his three carriers into the battle, but he also determined that they carried about the same number of planes as the four Japanese carriers that Yamamoto had. Moreover, Nimitz would have an additional 109 Army, Navy, and Marine land-based aircraft on Midway Island to commit to the battle.
Nimitz threw everything he had into the battle in a concentrated fashion. Yamamoto, convinced of his overwhelming strength, dispersed his fleet into several forces that were too far away from each other to lend support. Nimitz concentrated against each of these enemy forces in turn. The result was that despite tactical skill, gallantry, and determination on both sides, the U.S. regained the initiative. The U.S. lost one aircraft carrier, the U.S.S. Yorktown, and one destroyer. The Japanese lost all four carriers, its total carrier fleet, plus one heavy cruiser. Midway was one of the most decisive battles in history, and is considered the turning point in the war with Japan.

Gain and Keep the Initiative

The advantages of seizing the initiative are well documented throughout military history as well as in countless business success stories. But how can you ensure that your organization gains and keeps the initiative? In my research, I have discovered five key effective ways to do this:

  1. Analyze the Situation Carefully
  2. Seek Hidden Opportunities and New Solutions
  3. Act Now!
  4. Act Boldly
  5. Keep the Pressure On

To do this, see Vol. 9, No. 2 of this journal where we discuss this topic in full.

* Adapted from The Art of the Strategist by William A. Cohen (AMACOM, 2004)

Henri de Jomini, The Art of War, translated by G,H. Mendell and W.P. Craighill (Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott & Co., 1862) p. 167.



“Have you got a problem? Do what you can where you are with what you’ve got.” – Theodore Roosevelt

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