Ultimate Maxims: Strategy From the Red Baron

I stumbled on this, another example where strategy of all kinds is “the same at the top.” This is a list of principles created for WWI dogfighting by the teacher of the Red Baron:


I find it really interesting that in business, often it’s about “fractal”-based success. That is, just as fractals are complex graphics based on very simple rules, business strategy is about learning to use a few extremely important maxims extremely consistently. Sort of like, sure 80% of your decisions and actions might not fall within these, but your ultimate maxims decide your fate in those 20% of the decisions that make 80% or more of the difference. The maxims basically prevent you from making really dumb decisions in the situations that are most likely to impact your success.

The Red Baron

I think it’s a big thing, the “ultimate maxims” thing.

Part of it, that you can see from the “Dicta,” is identifying the key dynamic. In WWI, one of the biggest things was that whoever got behind the other and started shooting first, tended to win. Once you know that, you build an entire strategy around it, and until the situation changes, you have the most effective strategy. In the meantime, a lot of the other people are just trying to “be really good fighters” and so they lose, since they’re concentrating on 100% rather than being nearly perfect at the crucial 20%.

Surprisingly, the Red Baron wasn’t known for being the most brilliant fly-boy, or the most acrobatic pilot.  He was a good shot, and more importantly, a stickler with the rules. The right rules.

Ultimate maxims teach us a lot about how to actually put the 80/20 rule into practice:

  1. Figure out the crucial dynamic.
  2. Develop a strategy based on exploiting this dynamic.
  3. Create a set of maxims that ensure you never screw up the most important things.
  4. Follow the maxims more strictly than you’d like to.