Tolstoy on War and Peace and Agile

Drawing of Leo Tolstoy writing
Leo Tolstoy at work

Due to covid-19, my local library was closed for two months. Actually, other urban systems in my state opened much earlier, so part of that period was due to a lack of agility by the library system’s managers. This segues to the title of this post. I took the closure as an opportunity to finally read War and Peace.

I now understand its reputation as a phenomenal work of art. It is also, however, a work of history, as author Leo Tolstoy himself said. Along with the personal dramas of the featured fictional families, Tolstoy covers in detail two campaigns fought between Napoleon and the Russians in the 1810s. He wraps up the book with an analysis of historical theory. Quotations from the history topics proved to me yet again there is nothing new about the problems with hierarchies that Agile management practices are still trying to fix at the enterprise level 160 years later.

Let us start with higher-level managers who think they have a lot of influence on what happens at the line level. Tolstoy wrote, “history shows that in most cases an expression of will by historical personages leads absolutely nowhere—their orders are often ignored, and sometimes what occurs is the exact opposite of what they have ordered.”

Tolstoy provides strong evidence leaders are just as trapped by environment and circumstance as anyone else. “From the incalculable series of Napoleon’s orders that were never carried out, one series of orders for the campaign of 1812 was carried out, not because of any essential difference between these and the ones not carried out, but simply because this series happened to correspond with the course of events bringing the French soldiers into Russia…”

This is one reason why relying on books by successful leaders is dangerous. Often the reasons they list for their successes do not differentiate them from executives who failed. A vivid line reminded me of so many situations in non-Agile companies where managers accept credit for good outcomes they had nothing to do with. “Some men are hauling a log. Each of them speaks out and says where and how it should be hauled. The log is hauled away and it ends up just as one of them had said it would. So he (supposedly) gave the order (that was followed). This is command and power at their most primitive.”

In fact, Tolstoy drives home again and again a point researchers and management gurus have repeated for decades, but most executives don’t really believe: The mass of people in your company are entirely the reason for your success. He describes the many factors that had be in place for the Franco-Russian War to occur, but adds, “if every last sergeant had refused to go back into the army there would have been no war either.”

In other words, like the gears in a clock, “the complex action of humanity in those 160,000 Russians and Frenchmen—all their passions, longings, regrets, humiliation and suffering, their rushes of pride, fear and enthusiasm—only worked its way out… at the battle of Austerlitz…”

To that end, managers who claim success because “everyone shared our vision” are fooling themselves. Tolstoy says we can correctly analyze the significant “events and their consequences” leading to a result only if “we resist the temptation to invest the participating masses with aims that never existed outside the minds of a dozen men.”

One reason I push empowerment is, it reflects the reality that we are all primarily interested in what is best for ourselves. Tolstoy wrote, “Just as the sun and every atom of ether is both a sphere complete in itself and also only a tiny part of an inconceivably vast whole, so every personality bears within himself his own aims, whilst bearing them also in the service of generalized aims that lie beyond human comprehension.”

It follows from this that building hierarchies of social power will lead to people at the top getting too much credit. “The movement of peoples is determined not as historians have supposed, by the exercise of power, or the intellect, or both together, but by the actions of all involved, all the people who come together in such a way that those who participate most directly in the activity assume the least responsibility for it, and vice versa.”

Hierarchy comes in for a general drubbing in War and Peace that could, with a few word changes, apply to the typical business today. His character Boris Drubetskoy “mastered the unwritten code… which allows for a junior officer to outrank a general and says that what you need to succeed in the service is not effort, hard work, gallantry, or perseverance, but simply the art of getting on well with people who have promotion and awards in their gift.” The thorny part of this problem is, bosses often truly believe the promotion they gave was based on merit instead of the promoted person telling them what they wanted to hear.

Reflecting the overriding goal of social power, during a reshuffling of top positions in the Russian army, “party in-fighting at headquarters was even more complicated than usual. A was trying to undermine B’s position, D was getting at C, and so on, in all conceivable combinations and permutations. And everybody was undermining everybody else mainly over the course of the war, which all these men thought they were in control of, though in practice the war ignored them and went its own inevitable way.” I am often bemused by the days of huddling of middle and upper managers to solve this problem or that, resulting usually in grand plans that a year later had zero impact on workers or customers.

In every case, this was because no amount of planning can coordinate actions over that long a period, as true Agilists keep saying. Tolstoy lists all the reasons it made no sense to try to destroy an army that was already falling apart as it ran away, the best being that it was impossible. “Impossible, first because we know from experience that the movement of columns over a three-mile area on a given battlefield never coincides with any planning, so the possibility of (three generals) arriving together at an appointed spot was so remote as to be virtually impossible. Kutuzov… went on record as saying that long-distance manœuvers never work out according to plan.”

We hear a lot about “confirmation bias” these days, which is sad given that Tolstoy identified it back then, and provided an antidote. The wise Russian Field Marshal Mikhail Kutuzov is not even sure whether their last major battle was a victory. Kutuzov “knew that men who want something are only too ready to arrange the evidence to suit their wishful thinking and willingly exclude anything that contradicts it. And the more Kutuzov wanted it to be true, the less he allowed himself to believe it.”

After 20 years of researching the psychology of teamwork, I don’t know what it will take to get managers to stop acting like they are somehow better than people in the ranks. For Pierre Bezukhov, it took imprisonment for him to acknowledge “everybody’s capacity to think and feel for himself, to see things his way; an acknowledgement of the impossibility of ever changing anybody’s mind by words. This individuality rightfully enjoyed by all people, something that had bothered Pierre and irritated hm in earlier days, now formed the basis of the sympathetic interest he felt in other people. The disparities, sometimes the outright contradictions that existed between people’s views and the way they lived, and between one man and another, were a source of delight for Pierre.” Would that more managers would harness the power of multiple perspectives rather than shutting it down.

With some changes of names and countries and technology, War and Peace could be a novel about contemporary business management. Most executives continue primarily to seek social power, while convincing themselves they act on behalf of customers, workers, or shareholders. Then they repeat management practices long proven less effective in helping those groups.

I have little hope those in charge 160 years from now will be any different.


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  • Peter, L., and R. Hull, The Peter Principle: Why Things Always Go Wrong (New York, NY: Bantam Books, 1972)
  • Tolstoy, Leo, War and Peace, trans. by Anthony Briggs (New York, NY: Penguin Books, 2005)
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