May 2022

Articles  /  Turning Swords Into Plowshares: Business Lessons From Boelcke’s Dictum

May 29, 2022

Alberto “Albert” I. Entao, Jr., AFPM




A large part of my book collection is comprised of subjects in the field of military history, warfare, and weaponry. My daughter once asked me why I have such a strong interest in these topics. I explained to her that since the dawn of mankind’s existence, people have been involved in armed aggression against others. Humans have constantly organized themselves to wage armed conflict against one another. Sadly, war has led to the formulation of many ideas, concepts, and principles with the goal of creating maximum damage and the destruction of one’s foes. There is much to be learned from our collective history of conflict.

This article is borne out of turning these negatives into something positive. It is an effort to make sense out of destruction and mayhem and apply these to something constructive. Hence the title for this series of articles where I plan to discuss concepts, strategies, ideas in warfare and see how these could be applied into peaceful applications.

Oswald Boelcke (19 May 1891 28 October 1916) was a German pilot and ace. He is considered as one of the most influential tacticians of aerial warfare and is considered as the “Father of Aerial Combat.” During World War 1, dogfighting was still in its infancy. There was virtually no organized guidelines or tactics for air to air combat. Boelcke made an effort to codify the life and death lessons he learned in the aerial battlefield while personally racking up 40 kills. He completed his “Dicta Boelcke” in 1916 and this subsequently became the basis for air combat tactics which to this day, continues to be the groundwork for air combat training in modern air forces.

take a look at his eight dicta and see the applicable business lessons we could derive from these.

 Dicta Boelcke



1. Use surprise to get the upper hand. Strike from above while keeping the sun at your back.

The history of warfare has time and again shown the value of surprise as a force multiplier. Achieving surprise over the enemy increases the chances of success due to the momentum being dictated by the attacker. Harvard Business Review released a paper that explored the psychology of why “surprise” can be so effective in business.



This study looked at MRIs and saw how our brain’s reward centers lit up whenever we would receive something positive and unexpected. Who among us doesn’t enjoy a good surprise and the wonderful feeling of happiness that comes when someone goes out of their way to surprise us with a wonderful gift; or an act of kindness when someone picks up our wallet and runs after us to return it after we had unknowingly dropped it; or finding out that our bill at a restaurant has already been paid for by a dear friend that we were surprised to find out was in the same venue. In the same manner that positive surprises have always been a good way to maintain interests among friends, the same principle can be applied in business. We talk about the value of “delighting the customer” as a way in which products and services are defined by the positive experiences customers get from a brand. Branding through the use of “surprises” is like a powerful drug which can help maintain the loyalty of customers as it builds on their interests on getting to experience something new and different. We see that kind of strategy utilized by the way companies like Apple launches it products. When the time between “surprises” gets longer and longer, customers begin to lose interest in the brand and start looking for the next big thing.

2. Always carry through an attack when you have started it.

Boelcke stressed that once a pilot has committed to engage an enemy fighter plane, he needs to remain committed to the battle. Running from a fight only leaves a pilot at the mercy of pursuers. The pilot who is relentless in his pursuit of victory is the one that will outlast and win the battle. Half hearted efforts lead to losing the initiative and allow your opponent to recover and strike back. Total commitment means seeing things through even if this involves a long term struggle.


James P. Cares, in his book, Finite vs Infinite Games,writes:

"There are at least two kinds of games: finite and infinite. A finite game is played for the purpose of winning, an infinite game for the purpose of continuing the play. Finite games are those instrumental activities - from sports to politics to wars - in which the participants obey rules, recognize boundaries and announce winners and losers. The infinite game - there is only one - includes any authentic interaction, from touching to culture, that changes rules, plays with boundaries and exists solely for the purpose of continuing the game. A finite player seeks power; the infinite one displays self-sufficient strength. Finite games are theatrical, necessitating an audience; infinite ones are dramatic, involving participants..."


Simon Sineksin his book, The Infinite Game, provides a framework where he shows that winners are those who are able to outlast their competition. One powerful example that Sinek uses to illustrate his point is how Apple and Microsoft play the game. A video of Sinek talking about this is available on YouTube . In a nutshell, Sinek describes how Apple constantly competes against themselves in contrast to Microsoft.

Sinek points out, “The infinite player isn’t playing to be no. 1 every day with every product. They’re playing to outlast the competition. One is obsessed with their competition; the other is obsessed with why they do what they do; they’re obsessed with where they are going.” Apple is able to frustrate their competition because they are relentless in challenging themselves and recognizing that sometimes they’ll be ahead and sometimes they’ll be behind. Following Boelcke’s 2nd dictum, by continuing to “attack” and relentlessly challenge themselves, Apple at some point gets to stay ahead more often than its rivals and, in the end, outlast their opponent.


3. Fire only at close range, and only when your opponent is properly in your sights.

Boelcke flew planes like the Fokker Eindeker which carried around 500 rounds of ammunition. Blazing away at a distant target was just a waste of ammo. Running out of ammunition in the middle of a dogfight is one of the worse situations a pilot can go through. He preached the value of optimizing opportunities and efficiently managing a limited resource.


Boelcke flew planes like the Fokker Eindeker which carried around 500 rounds of ammunition. Blazing away at a distant target was just a waste of ammo. Running out of ammunition in the middle of a dogfight is one of the worse situations a pilot can go through. He preached the value of optimizing opportunities and efficiently managing a limited resource. Fighter planes during his time were equipped with metal gunsight rings that let the pilot know if a target was in range. During Boelcke’s time, it was a simple matter of filling up the gunsight ring if the target plane filled up the ring, then you’re in range to hit the target. Boelcke advocated closing to at least 100 meters before opening fire. Obviously, the closer you are to the target, the higher chances of hitting critical areas in the plane that you are aiming at, thus optimizing your use of ammo.

This lesson on optimization is applicable to business. Business optimization, the process in which an organization improves its efficiency by managing its resources, plays a key role in improving its productivity and allows businesses to achieve more. This applies to its internal operations and external products. At the heart of all of these is the language of metrics. Just like the fighter pilot who utilizes his gunsight rings to determine his range to the target, business can make efficient use of its resources by measuring and introducing process interventions based on the big data and connective technology that is available. Simply put, we need to be able to measure in order to understand if we are achieving what we want to accomplish.


4. Keep your eye on the enemy at all times, even if you think hes going down. Never let yourself be deceived by his ruses.

One common ruse used by pilots during Boelcke’s time was to feign being shot down. As soon as the opposing pilot veered off, the pilot would then whip his plane up and re engage. Boelcke stressed the importance of situational awareness or what the military refers to as “SA.”


Basically, SA means developing and maintaining an intimate knowledge of ones - surroundings ones  arena” or “battlespace.” Doing so allows one to pierce the “fog of war” to determine the best possible courses of action. “Fog of war” refers to the uncertainty or confusion regarding your adversary’s disposition, capability, and intent. It’s therefore a huge advantage in business to understand what’s happening with your industry, your competitors, and with your customers.

Breaking down silos and establishing a robust communication channel that cuts across the organization; having regular meetings and engaging in open discussions; regular communication with your suppliers and stakeholders and analyzing your findings - all of these initiatives help pierce the “fog of war,” leading to more actionable insights.

Understanding your customers should not only be limited to observing their business, but also to constantly paying attention to the challenges they encounter. While we may not 100% predict what our customers want or need, building an SA culture will allow us to achieve better rates of predictability. This leads to surprising and delighting our customers (Boelckes Dictum #1).



5. Always get in behind your enemy.

Boelcke recognized that head on passes were risky, while trying to hit an enemy plane travelling across your plane’s nose or flight path was near impossible. He stressed the importance of being on an enemy fighter’s tail as this is the optimum attack position where one can fire at their opponent without any risk of counterfire.


Business strategic plans need to consider the company’s competitive positioning. To be at the optimum position to dominate the market, a company needs to be able to clearly articulate what sets its products and services apart from its competitors. It needs to define a strategy that affirms its value to its customers vs other businesses that sell the same or similar products or services. Differentiators such as unique selling proposition (USP), price, quality, product range, customer service, location, etc. are areas where businesses can define their strategy and optimize the way they attack their competition. Consider what the competition isn’t doing. Look at ways to leverage their weaknesses and make them your strength. For example, if your competitors operate their business for eight hours, consider extending your business beyond eight hours to service customers.


6. If your opponent dives on you, do not try to evade his attack, but fly to meet it.

Boelcke stressed the importance of maintaining initiative in combat. “When surprised by an enemy, don’t run. Always attack! Turn your guns onto the threat, even if the enemy is diving on you. Steal the initiative, put him on the defensive and then look for the chance to get on his tail.”



Competition exists in the market because consumers want the ability to choose among possible options. When the competition attacks you, it is because they want to reduce your value in the eyes of your customers in order to grab your share of the market.

The adage, “The best defense is a good offense” was first said by George Washington in 1799, “…offensive operations, often times, is the surest, if not the only means of defense. And as Boelcke pointed out, it is important to aggressively respond to an attack from your competition in order to maintain your momentum and position in the marketplace.

The cola wars is an example where The Coca-Cola Company and PepsiCo, engaged in mutually targeted marketing campaigns beginning in the late 1970s and into the 1980s for dominance. Coke was the more popular soda but in 1975, Pepsi started its “Pepsi Challenge” marketing campaign which was a blind taste test that showed more people preferred Pepsi over Coke. At various public locations, Pepsi would set up a table with two white cups: one containing Pepsi and the other Coca-Cola. People were invited to taste both and then select the drink. The Pepsi representative then reveals the identity of the cup so the taster can see whether they preferred Coke or Pepsi. The results of the test leaned toward a consensus that Pepsi was preferred by more consumers. Internal studies by Coca-Cola also indicated that consumers preferred Pepsi because it had a “sweeter, more syrupy flavor.” Coke was still outselling Pepsi but its market share was declining.

Following Boelcke’s dictum #6, Coke could have gone on the offensive and attacked the “Pepsi Challenge.” Subsequent studies have presented evidence that Pepsi’s success over Coca-Cola in the Pepsi Challenge  is a result of the flawed nature of the sip test method. In his book Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking (2005), author Malcolm Gladwell’s research shows that tasters will generally prefer the sweeter of two beverages based on a single sip, even if they prefer a less sweet beverage over the course of an entire can.

Instead of going on the offensive, Coke reacted defensively by making changes to their beverage’s original formula. The “New Coke,” as it became known featured a sweeter taste which consumers seemed to favor in the blind test. Roberto Goizueta, Coca-Cola’s CEO and Chairman, announced to the press on April 23, 1985, that this new formula had a “smoother, rounder, yet bolder a more harmonious flavor.” What was left unsaid was that the New Coke tasted sweeter like Pepsi. Consumer backlash was severe within weeks of Coke’s announcement. By June, Coke was fielding 8,000 calls a day from angry consumers demanding that the company go back to the original taste. Coke shares continued to drop on the New York Stock Exchange while those of Pepsi continued to rise. Pepsi continued to attack by declaring victory in full page newspaper ads that stated, “After 87 years of going at it eyeball to eyeball, the other guy just blinked.”

Coca-Cola had underestimated the emotional attachments that loyal drinkers’ have to the brand. Their research did not take into consideration how consumers would feel if the original formula was replaced with a new one. Coca-Cola was fortunate that their strategic blunder with changing their formula became a financial success. Seventy nine days after their initial announcement, Coke executives had to make a strategic retreat and held another press conference to announce the return of the original formula under the label “Coca-Cola Classic.” The Coca-Cola Classic quickly outsold the New Coke and within a few months, became the top seller ahead of Pepsi. Coca-Cola rebranded the New Coke as “Coke II in 1992 but it never took off and it was subsequently discontinued in 2002. In 2010, the Wall Street Journal ran a headline declaring Coke as the winner in the Cola Wars.


7. When over the enemys lines, never forget your own line of retreat.

While retreat is rarely a safe option in any dogfight, Boelcke maintained that when mixing it up over hostile territory, it was important for a fighter pilot to have an escape route back to friendly lines open just in case. Having a contingency plan was an important component of survival in the battlefield. 


One of the major lessons we can take away from the last two years is that our world can turn out to be more uncertain than what we could ever imagine it to be. Murphy’s Law is well and truly alive, “If anything can go wrong, it will go wrong.” The Covid 19 pandemic has forced businesses to reimagine the manner in which to conduct business. Things will not always go our way and many businesses have discovered the hard and painful lessons of the importance of having a contingency plan to respond effectively to crisis situations. 

Since no marketplace is truly stable, businesses recognize that there are always risks that can sideline or derail any project or initiative. Contingency plans play an important role in risk management as having this in place facilitates being able to put together an effective recovery plan. This proactive strategy is set up to account for possible disruptive events so that the business can be prepared if and when these take place. Creating one can be as simple as asking “What if…?” and then drawing up the possible responses as you answer that question.


8. For the Staffel (squadron): Attack on principle in groups of four or six. When the fight breaks up into a series of single combats, take care that several do not go for the same opponent





Boelcke stressed the importance of teamwork where pilots mutually support each other when fighting as a group. He advocated that when engaging an enemy squadron, pilots should make sure they’re each targeting different planes. If too many friendly aircraft attack the same target plane, it leaves the enemy aircraft free to escape or counter attack. If you’re matched man to man, but two of your pilots accidentally go after the same target, then that leaves an enemy plane free to go after one of your own. Instead, the pilots should be aware of where each one is, and they should coordinate their attacks as best as possible to keep the enemy on their back foot.

There can be no doubt on how collaborative efforts in solving problems in business leads to better outcomes. Experience and results have shown that “more brains are better than one.” Effective teams are those where members are able to play off each other’s skills and knowledge and pool the resulting collection of ideas into practical and creative solutions. By sharing information, each individual of the team learns from the others and allows them to discover new concepts from colleagues with different experiences. They also get to learn from someone else’s mistakes which helps them avoid this in the future. Teamwork not only encourages personal growth, but can also increase job satisfaction and stress reduction.

We’ve seen how concepts that were borne out of war can be re applied to a positive application. How each military dictum could be re-purposed to a peaceful civilian objective. When I started working on this article, Russia was massing its forces over the border of Ukraine threatening to invade. Sadly, seventyseven years after the end of World War 2, Ukraine is once again a battlefield and the threat of this conflict escalating beyond its borders looms like the sword of Damocles. We see the application of research and technology resulting in violence and destruction. I pray for the day when our collective knowledge for warfare will someday be for the purpose of making our world a better place. And that there will no longer be a reason to come up with knowledge such as Boelcke’s Dicta…

Alberto “Albert” I. Entao, Jr., AFPM

Alberto "Albert Entao Jr, is extensively involved in the field of education and training and has over 35 years in this area. He presently runs his own consulting company, A.I. Entao Jr Human Resources Consulting Services/ Alpine Solutions Delivery and partners with HURIS, Inc. in the design facilitation of training programs. He has worked in executive management positions in the banking, telecommunications, IT, and BPO industry. On the personal side, Albert enjoys building and flying radio controlled airplanes, cooking, practical shooting, collecting vintage watches and reading books on various topics.

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