Emotion verses Strategy: Which Helps You Gain the Position of Advantage?

“Your men must brave their fears.” ~ Sun Tzu

Our emotional reactions to threats are called “fight, flinch or flight” also known as the “survival stress response.” We attack, freeze or run from that which threatens us. It is simply the way we humans are wired to respond when we are facing adversarial conditions. As with many factors in conflict and violence paradoxes exist. The fight, flinch or flight response has its positive side in that it instantly readies us for action when spontaneous threats arise. When highly trained the survival stress response enables us to react and to a sudden attack and block a punch or instantly present our firearm towards a deadly threat. On the other hand it decreases critical thinking, depletes fine and complex motor skills and creates in many tunnel vision and hearing. Emotional reactions can indeed save your life but they can in the wrong circumstances cost you your life when a sound strategy would serve you better.

In the world of law enforcement, we deal with both spontaneous and progressively unfolding circumstances and emotional reactions lead to inconsistent success. An emotional response of moving forward and fighting may have you walking or running into danger you are not prepared to deal with. On the other hand we cannot run away from the problems we face nor can we always wait for more highly trained units to respond and solve the problems. Running away unless it is a sound tactical option gets us nowhere and conflict is too costly. Instead we must create and nurture the ability to control our emotions when they would do us more harm and develop a strategy (what is it we want to accomplish?) when the dynamics of the situation dictate a slower and agile tempo.

“There are many factors in war. You may lack knowledge of any one of them. If so it is wrong to take a nation to war.” ~Sun Tzu

How do we overcome our survival stress response? We overcome fight, flinch or flight through knowledge and developing a strategy that leads to thinking through tactical options that help us gain an advantageous position, which leads to the next position and so on, even when time is of the essence and risk is high. The better our knowledge the better our positions and strategy is about improving our position and using our strengths verses and adversary’s weakness to build up or advance our position. The purpose of strategy is in developing the warrior mind which sees everything as an opportunity. But to see these opportunities we must build on our strategic knowledge and the whole of conflict, its causes and effects to the strength of our position is based in strategy and tactics verses emotion. This gives us vitality and hence we are able to grow with the circumstances and exploit opportunities that lead to safe and effective resolutions.

“You have strengths and weaknesses. These come from your position.” ~Sun Tzu

I was just reminded by my good friend Scott Shipman, purveyor of, To Be or To Do of what COL John Boyd said, in Patterns of Conflict about, enhancing vitality and growth. It’s what we should be focused on when handling dangerous encounters and striving for peaceful outcomes; “A grand ideal, overarching theme, or noble philosophy that represents a coherent paradigm within which individuals as well as societies can shape and adapt to unfolding circumstances—yet offers a way to expose flaws of competing or adversary systems.” Our aim, COL John Boyd explains is to “improve fitness as an organic whole to shape and expand influence or power over the course of events in the world.” In other words we interact within our environment and all those in it (adversarial and friendly) and work to shape and reshape the moral, mental and physical circumstances. This is where police operation art, our ability to apply what we know to what’s important now comes into play based on our orientation of the unfolding conditions. Being mindful of the fact that we are operating on only partial clues as to what’s going on and are continually gathering information we can act on. Therefore we must constantly be aware of shifting conditions and continually exploring to gather more actionable information throughout the tactical encounter.

Other ingredients needed to pursue our vision and the outcomes we are looking for Boyd explained are: Insight, the ability to peer into and discern the inner nature or workings of things. Initiative, which is the internal drive to think and take action, without being urged; Agility, the power to adjust or change in order to cope with new or unforeseen circumstances. Harmony, the power to perceive or create interaction of apparently disconnected events or entities in a connected way. Insight, initiative, agility and harmony are in constant flux because circumstances change or you’re on another day, handling another crisis. Strategy uses the most powerful weapon of all, the human mind, to give us better options than our emotions and fight, flinch or flight. Do not let your emotions get the best of you. Instead use a strategic and tactical mind.

“Machines don’t fight wars. People do and they use their minds.” ~COL John Boyd

Stay Oriented!

Fred