There are times in a leader’s experience when it will be prudent to watch and await developments. Sometimes more is to be gained by figuratively taking off one’s pack, sitting down on the side of the road, and monitoring the flow of events, than by leaping into the fray. On the other hand, there are also just as many–if not more–times when decisive and speedy action is necessary to deal with a nascent problem. Knowing when to wait and when to act is one of those key questions that we all have to confront sooner or later. It is ultimately a tactical decision for which no firm rules can be laid out: every situation must be evaluated on its own merits.
But if we study history, philosophy, and human behavior, we can gain insights that help us in our tactical agility. We will see, when reviewing the experiences of leaders and historical figures down through the centuries, that certain situations come up again and again. We will notice that certain human motivations are timeless. And we will see that the experiences of others may help us determine a course of action for ourselves.
We will consider the example of a king of the Alemanni (a group of Germanic tribes near the Rhine) named Vadomarius. In the year 361 A.D. he was an occasional antagonist of the Roman armies of Gaul, commanded by Julian, who had been elevated to the rank of Caesar in 355 by the emperor Constantius. Julian and Constantius were cousins; they were also deeply suspicious of each other. The emperor was jealous of Julian’s charisma and popularity, and his mind was constantly oppressed by worries of how to deal with this dangerous potential rival.
In 360 Vadomarius broke a treaty he had agreed to and ravaged some frontier regions controlled by the Romans. But Vadomarius and his brother Gundomadus apparently made a peace deal with Constantius. According to the historian Ammianus Marcellinus (XXI.3), the wily Constantius quietly enlisted Vadomarius as a “secret executor” of his schemes (secretorumque taciturnum exsecutorem et efficacem mandabat). The understanding between the two was that Vadomarius would, every so often, break the peace and make incursions into Gaul, with the purpose of tying down Julian with the defense of the province. Constantius wanted to keep his potential rival away from Constantinople, the seat and center of Roman political power. For him it was better to have his hated cousin tied down in the forests of Germany and Gaul, fighting to keep marauding Germans on the other side of the Rhine. This, at least, was the plan as Constantius saw it.
Vadomarius played his role to the hilt. He was a man “skilled in deception and fraud from an early age” (ad perstringendum fallendumque miris modis ab aetatis primitiis callens), according to our perceptive historian. And yet treachery usually has a way of revealing itself eventually. In 361, one of Vadomarius’s messengers to Constantius was captured by Julian’s men; he was found to be carrying a letter that revealed the extent of the collusion between the German leader and the emperor in Constantinople. The letter also contained derogatory remarks about Julian’s qualities as a leader. This information, of course, was promptly relayed back to Julian, who was now confirmed in his belief that his cousin was scheming to have him put out of the picture.
Julian was an educated and cultured man, but also one of character, leadership, and hard-nosed practicality. He probably knew at this stage that, considering Constantius’s perpetual bad faith and dishonesty, he would eventually have to rebel against his cousin and claim the throne for himself. But before doing this he would need to make his position in Gaul more secure. He resolved to have Vadomarius arrested and taken into custody. Julian sent a secretary named Philagrius to speak to the German king, who, suspecting nothing, was then invited to a banquet. Julian’s secret instructions to Philagrius was to take Vadomarius into custody after the feast was over; and this he did. Julian had acted quickly to remove a double-dealing snake from the picture.
But Julian did not stop there. Besides arresting Vadomarius, he wanted to make an impression on the German king’s men. So he crossed the Rhine at night and attacked them with ferocity; he received the surrender of some, and put others to the sword. The point was to teach them that they should behave themselves, and not create any more disturbances. “Nothing was so favorable to an urgent project as was fast action,” Ammianus tells us (XXI.5).
So did Julian secure his rear as he prepared to revolt against his treacherous cousin in Constantinople. His men were ready; they liked him and would follow him anywhere. Julian “knew from hard experience how important it was to preempt and forestall an enemy during periods of volatility” (Amm. XXI.5.13). Readers may recall that this need for decisive action in the hour of decision was echoed in Sallust’s Conspiracy of Catiline:
By fussing over plans and postponing the day of attack, he believed they were squandering precious opportunities. In such an hour of peril it was action, not thought, that was needed; and if a few men would help him, he would mount a direct attack on the Curia despite the passivity of the rest…[Cat. XLIII]
The time had been right to act with speed and decision, and Julian acted. The natural question to be asked in these situations is, of course, this: how do I know when to wait, and when to act? The answer to this question is not an easy one. In fact it cannot be answered with finality, for each situation is unique and has to be dealt with in its own way. And yet it may be possible to offer some very general guidelines on this question.
Read widely in history, philosophy, and biography. As stated above, the same situations will come up over and over. If you can see how a great man handled himself in a certain difficulty, you will be inspired to do likewise. You will also learn about human behavior, and how to read people and situations. Reading philosophy is also important, as it trains the mind to think logically, directs the spirit to higher planes, fortifies the character, and provides a moral basis for life and thought.
When in doubt, it is usually better to wait. This rule may be disputed by many. But it seems true that even men considered “men of action” counsel prudence unless one has a good idea of what is going on. More damage and harm seems to come from intemperate speech or action than from caution and evaluation.
If a decisive step is being taken, behave decisively. If you are already committed to a course of action, you have crossed the Rubicon. It does no good to take mincing steps or half-measures. If you are already committed, behave as if you are committed. Flinching and squeamishness can become your ruin.
Develop an instinctive feel for people and situations. You must develop a sixth sense of when something is about to happen. You must be able to pick up on those subtle cues that tell us when to do one thing or something else. The only way this instinct can be trained is through experience. We must seek out ways to interact and associate with others, so that we can get a feel for group dynamics. Being in leadership positions is, of course, invaluable in this regard. Developing an instinct for situations also means that one must learn how to gather information. Good intelligence is a prerequisite for effective action.
Watch the right films. Some may scoff at this, but I am convinced that watching movies (the right movies, that is) is also a good way to train ourselves on how to deal with situations and personalities. Now I am not talking about the mindless dreck spewed out of most cinemas these days: I want to make this clear. I am talking about seeing the best and chewing on the right scenes and dialogue. In the era before cinema, plays and operas did this function, and they still do. Do not forget that Shakespeare was so popular in his time because he vividly portrayed characters that showed love, hate, treachery, loyalty, nobility, and the rest of the range of human qualities.
These, then, are some thoughts about when to wait and when to strike.