On this day, 76 years ago, celebrations erupted throughout the western world. The allies of World War II accepted Germany’s unconditional surrender. May 8th, Victory in Europe Day, is celebrated across European nations as a public holiday. Although it’s less the case in the United States, the US department of defense has a great website to commemorate the event.
As a kid, I spent my summers on the coast of Normandy. Sometimes, I would play on the remains of German bunkers on the D-day beach of Sword, where my grandparents had a vacation home. The stories told by my grandfather and his veteran friends are still the foundation of my narrative of eternal gratitude for the allies who liberated my country of origin. Over 11 million Americans were involved in World War II. Amongst them, just between June 1944 and May 8, 1945, 552,117 U.S. troops died to free Europe.
The discussion about May 8th as a day of victory also reveals a pattern typical of powerful narratives: the fight against a common enemy.
During World War II, capitalist countries and the communist Soviet Union were ideological opposites. However, when it came to fighting the Nazis, they managed to find common ground and created an alliance. When there is a common enemy, people from opposite ideologies come together.
Although the metaphor of War in business can sometimes lead to oversimplifications, it is still interesting to observe that identifying a clear common enemy makes organizations run well.
Examples of enemies.
Organizations with a strong strategic narrative target a distinct enemy. Here are a few examples:
Salesforce (in the early 2000s): software
Tesla: fossil fuel
Nike: a mediocre world
IT cosmetics: insecurity
Impossible Foods: meat from animals
Tom’s: bare feet
T-Mobile: the traditional carrier
Southwest Airlines: hidden fees
Charity: water: the water crisis
HubSpot: interruption by marketers and salespeople
Even world peace needs an enemy and a conflict to resolve.
Why framing conflict matters.
Picking an enemy is an archetypal pattern to rally and align people around a strategic narrative. If we all have the same enemy, there is a reason to adopt the same strategy to defeat it.
As humans, we are riveted by conflict. In any narrative, no problem is a problem. Conflict creates drama, and our brains crave drama. To have a conflict, you have to have an enemy to fight.
Psychologist Jean Piaget once said when speaking about the stages of human development that “the ego arises by opposing itself”. This means that we need to find ourselves “in front of” others to find ourselves in front of our destiny. The challenges that we face represent a chance to help us define who we are.
More and more, business leaders have to act as a caretaker for society. As a CEO or a business leader, you are now responsible for some of the new narratives that society depends upon. You have an opportunity to create a business that stands for some of the fights that we all care about. Your customers, colleagues, partners, and investors will seize the chance to fight your enemy as a way to “position” themselves within the context of society. Fighting a common enemy creates a sense of belonging.
Later, your enemy will continue to motivate your community way beyond the transactional act of buying your product or service. People join a movement and want to continue to belong.
Europe: the need for a new enemy.
Regions, too, need to work on identifying their common enemy. That’s the case for Europe.
We created the concept of the European Union to fight wars. This regional narrative emerged after decades of conflicts. Since the 1950s, war is way less of a concern. While we should welcome this progress, it looks like the European Union struggles to renew a common sense of purpose with a strategic narrative that every country shares.
No more common enemy means too much room left to generate tensions based on old conflicts between ethnicities. Europe should frame its new common enemy to avoid fighting for the wrong ones.
Yet, it would be easy to pick a common enemy from a long list of options that we all know too well: unemployment, poverty, inequality, etc.