What’s the difference, you may ask? It would be a good question, because while technical aspects may differentiate a retreat from a retrograde, it comes down to one thing. Saving face and putting a positive spin on the message.
At some point in the past, a flag officer likely decided that to admit “retreat” was psychologically damaging to the soldiers on the front line. If he could, instead, reframe the maneuver as a positive, tactically advantageous action, the morale and willingness to continue the fight would be maintained. Call it a measure of positive spin.
Ask any private, however, and he’ll roll his eyes and shake his head. Why? Because he knows better than to fool himself into thinking there is a substantive difference between the two. From his vantage point, either way, his butt is saved, and he is grateful.
It’s really no different in the corporate world. Leaders often hesitate or actually refuse to acknowledge situations in which the prudent action is to move backward. To “retreat” is somehow to admit failure, as if such is: 1) validation of personal weakness or careless mistakes, or 2) a true step backward.
In reality, learning organizations should accept the opportunity to take a step backward, when appropriate, as ultimately a step in the right direction. The need to retreat is not necessarily a result of poor planning or execution. Sometimes it’s the unanticipated reality caused by third party actions or decisions that have fundamentally changed the assumptions upon which initial planning and decisions were based. In fact, refusal to retreat may be the WORST thing a leader can do.
Take a step back, regrouping, reanalyzing the dynamic and fluid environment in which your organization is operating, and reestablishing the tactical advantage is not a sign of weakness. It is a sign of self-aware, adaptive, and mature leadership. These are traits to be sought out, to be nurtured in leaders.
So, next time your organization is facing an overwhelming competitive disadvantage, choose retreat (or tactical retrograde, if you’re inclined toward insecure leadership). Make the strong leadership decision, and save your “troops” to fight another day.