Nobody said he was a great mathematician. But he may be the greatest general you never heard of. His actions over 2,000 years ago are a great example of how you can influence your future by the way you react to what’s coming at you.
Scipio Africanus led Roman armies during the Second Punic War from 211 to 202 BC. He had successfully ousted Carthaginian armies from the Iberian Peninsula and a large swath of northern Africa by the time he turned 35 years old.
He was undefeated as a commander going into his greatest challenge in 202 BC: facing the much feared Hannibal in the Battle of Zama in modern-day Tunisia.
A win could end the long war; a loss would mean the war would drag on for years. Problem was, things did not look good for Scipio.
Hannibal had significantly more troops. Worse, he also had 80 fearsome war elephants that could wreak havoc in the solid lines of Roman infantry.
Scipio knew that if he tried to keep his ranks firm, the elephants would tear them apart. With his lines in disarray, it would then be easy for Hannibal to swoop in and clean up the mess with his infantry.
To deal with the elephants, Scipio needed to change how he would respond to them.
On the day of battle, the armies formed long lines facing each other. Hannibal had his elephants out front, and opened the contest by ordering them to charge.
As the war elephants thundered toward the Roman lines, Scipio ordered blocks of his infantry to step to the side at the last moment, suddenly creating gaps in their lines. Instead of trying to resist the elephants, it was like opening doors and inviting them in.
Unable to change direction, the charging elephants took the path of least resistance and simply passed through to the rear. Javelin throwers were waiting there to deal with them. In minutes, the elephants were neutralized and out of the fight.
In the close-fought battle that followed, Scipio’s forces ultimately routed Hannibal with a cavalry attack from behind. Carthage soon sued for peace, and the Second Punic War was over.
Like Scipio, we all have elephants to face from time to time: odds that seem long, challenges that may seem insurmountable.
Most of the time we can’t control what elephants we face. What we can control is how we respond to them.
As Malcolm Gladwell says in his excellent David and Goliath, size has its advantages, but it also comes with disadvantages.
Don’t fear the elephants. Figure out how best to respond to them.
Think about what you can do with what you have, play to your strengths, and focus on moving forward.
The elephants are never as big as they seem.