Innovate Like the Swamp Fox

Innovate Like the Swamp FoxStudents of military history and the Revolutionary War recall the legend of the Swamp Fox, Brigadier General Francis Marion.  Marion helped protect the low country of South Carolina (near Charleston) for the nascent American nation and fought against British Redcoats, Hessian mercenaries, Loyalist, and Tory forces.  Marion received his nickname from the British General Banastre Tarleton who unsuccessfully pursued Marion across low country terrain for 26 miles.  In 1781, Marion’s small band of fighters represented the only resistance to British power in the area, and Marion had to rely solely on good news from the north and future promises of support from the Continental Congress to keep his faith up in the fighting effort.  Francis Marion was able to fight successfully against the most dominant military on Earth at the time through his cleverness, his ability to operate with minimal resources, and his knowledge of the local terrain.  In the new book The Swamp Fox: Lessons in Leadership from the Partisan Campaigns of Francis Marion, Scott Aiken highlights many of the techniques used by Marion in his dogged battle against the British.  The lessons below, recounted in an informative interview with Scott Aiken on the John Batchelor radio program, can be highly instructive for modern students of innovation.

Marion was a student of the concept of the “Culminating Point” in military affairs.  The Culminating Point was the point at which a military force no longer has the ability to continue its form of operations, whether on defense or offense.  Marion was exceptionally talented at knowing precisely when to increase his operational tempo.  Op tempo consists of moving more quickly or attacking more ferociously in response to an adversary, and Marion excelled at adjusting his op tempo to change the culminating point, either in the form of taking an enemy’s held position, or attacking an enemy at a vulnerable location, or convincing a pursuing enemy that he should give up the hunt and allow Marion to escape.

For the innovator, one should consider one’s own culminating point in working on a new idea, which can occur when the innovator realizes that he or she can no longer continue to invest in a new idea.  This is often a painful moment, the intensity of which varies based on the amount of time and money one has invested in the idea.  However, being able to identify this culminating point is critical to ensuring that an idea that no longer will bear fruit is stopped so resources can be shifted to other endeavors.  Likewise, one should think about Marion’s use of increasing his op tempo to drive towards a culminating point.  Perhaps an innovator is working on an innovation that has been lingering for a while for various reasons.  By increasing the op tempo, the innovator can determine more quickly if the idea will sink or swim.

In another innovation, Marion was particularly skilled at taking advantage of the terrain to give his forces a superior fighting position.  In the Battle of Lower Bridge near Williamsburg, South Carolina in March 1781, Marion placed his soldiers at both upper and lower portions of the terrain, focusing their firepower on a point where the British forces would have to slow down to pass over a bridge.  Marion wanted to be sure to engage the enemy in a place where his troops would have the advantage.  He employed the same tactic at the Battle of Sampit River, where Marion was pursuing a British contingent and  used his knowledge of the local terrain to identify a shortcut so he could send troops out ahead of the British and meet them at a crossing point.  Simultaneously, he kept a small group of troops following behind the British to harass their rear guard units to keep their forces spread out.

In these two engagements, Marion teaches the lesson of occupying the spot where one wants to engage the enemy rather than the other way around.  In other words, meet the enemy on your preferred turf, not his.  Although we as innovators don’t consider anyone to be enemies, we do face adversaries sometimes in the form of colleagues entrenched within the status quo and unwilling to consider alternative approaches.  Marion’s lesson for us is to think about where we and our competitors are headed and make sure any encounter occurs on terms that are favorable to us.  For example, if it turns out that we need to gain customer experience or usability data for a prototype because we know one of the senior executives who must sign off on our project will ask for that data, then we need to make sure that we don’t encounter that executive before the testing is complete, even if it means that we have to adjust our process to accommodate this.

Students of military history spend a great deal of time discussing the various types of formations used by armies over the centuries, from the infantry square to the echelon to the wedge.  According to Aiken, Marion leveraged an interesting arrangement of his soldiers as part of his fighting style.  Marion elected to place his sharpshooters at the center of firing line and his muskets at the flanks.  He did this because the sharpshooters took longer to reload their rifles than the soldiers with muskets and therefore needed protection on their flanks while reloading.  This formation protected the valuable rifles in the middle while still leveraging the powerful but less accurate muskets on the wings.

For the innovator, this reinforces the concept of making sure one understands the more valuable aspects of a new idea and focusing efforts to protect those aspects even if that protection comes at the expense of other attributes.  For instance, in a new idea to transform a process, there might be some steps in the process where a change will generate a lot of friction with the legacy organization but not yield much in terms of improved performance, while other parts of the process will result in dramatic improvements but may also cause friction.  In this scenario, Marion’s counsel would be to be willing to sacrifice the less important process changes to protect the core improvements one needs to be successful overall.

Aiken relays an interesting aspect of Marion’s personality that runs counter to what was typical of other military leaders in the late 18th Century.  Many generals of that era possessed a “martial” air and seemed eager to send their soldiers headlong into battle with little concern for loss of life as long as the larger objective was attained.  This was seen as a sign of bravery and wisdom on the part of the military leader.  Marion, on the other hand, was diminutive in stature (but fierce in battle) and had a reputation as someone who did not needlessly waste his soldiers’ lives or time.  Marion eschewed frontal assaults and always looked for flanks or unusual weapons to attack the enemy.

The first lesson from this example for the innovator is an easy one – don’t be afraid to operate in a way that is different from those around you.  As innovators we strive to think differently from our colleagues, but Marion’s approach would take this one step further in that we should think differently even from other innovators, just as Marion thought differently from other generals.  A second aspect to consider is the idea of garnering the respect of one’s troops.  Although the innovator is rarely someone in an organizational leadership role vis-à-vis the participants in an innovation workshop or working group, the innovator should think about making sure he or she neither needlessly sends those individuals headlong in a frontal assault on the status quo (risking their future success at the company) nor acts in a way that makes those individuals think that the innovator is wasting their time.  If Marion can be cognizant of the fact that he might be wasting the time of his ragtag militia in a time of war, then we can be considerate of the time investment we are requesting of our colleagues.

One story from Marion’s experiences as a war leader resonates well with the modern innovator – focusing on early wins.  On August 16, 1780, the British won the Battle of Camden and took a large number of prisoners.  Just a few days later, Marion led his first attack as a commander on the very forces who had won at Camden and was able to free 150 prisoners.  This not only enhanced the fighting strength of Marion’s small band of partisans but also sent a message that Marion was a serious fighting force.  Early wins mattered then just as much as we all know they matter now.

Like an innovator, Marion had to operate in a complex environment where it was not always clear where individuals fell in terms of supporting him.  While it was clear that the British Redcoats would oppose him at every turn, Marion also had to deal with local Tories and Loyalists – many of whom would just as soon stay under British rule as support the Revolutionaries in their midst.  According to Aiken, the Tories initially despised Marion and saw him as prolonging the war and disrupting their lives.  Yet, over time, as they recognized his abilities, they saw that his goal was to help them resume their normal lives after the war ended.

As innovators, our colleagues sometimes waver in terms of their support for our initiatives, and many will behave more like Loyalists (in terms of fealty to the current corporate leadership) than Revolutionaries.  The innovator may want to think about how to ensure these individuals that after the disruption their lives can return to some sense of normalcy but with the benefits that would come from the transformation.

Since he was isolated in South Carolina, Marion had to operate over a broad area with a small band of troops.  He practiced the concept of economy of force due to his limited manpower and supplies, but he did it in a way that had the maximum impact on the British forces.  The British had superior troop strength compared to Marion but because he was able to attack them effectively and quickly in different locations the British had to spread their forces out for protection.  As a result of numerous successful small attacks, Marion’s legend grew and he didn’t have to be everywhere at once to have an impact on the British,  Marion forced the British to think about him at all times and change their behavior as though his forces were nearby.  Writing in The Smithsonian, Amy Crawford observes that since “the British never knew where Marion was or where he might strike, they had to divide their forces, weakening them.”

According to Sean Busick, a professor of American history at Athens State University in Alabama, Marion “helped make South Carolina an inhospitable place for the British […and] Marion and his followers played the role of David to the British Goliath.”  The lesson for the innovator is that even though he or she may be small in number, by being active and demonstrating small successes across a broad area the innovator’s overall effectiveness can be magnified.  Just as Marion was constantly on the mind of the British, the innovator should seek ways to be on the mind of his colleagues to help unearth new innovation opportunities or to implement innovation initiatives.

In April of 1781, Marion unleashed one of his unique technical innovations in an attack on Fort Watson.  The British fort was situated on an Indian mound and, when its walls were combined with the natural elevation of the mound, Fort Watson sat over 40 feet above the ground level of any attackers.  The fort had water supply from a natural well and the British were well-armed and could fend off any conventional frontal assault.  Marion devised a solution known as the mayhem tower, which was a prefabricated wooden tower that rose higher than the walls of the British fort.  Marion’s troops built the pieces for the tower in secret and on a dark night they quietly assembled the tower within firing range of the fort and Marion’s sharpshooters climbed to the top of the tower.  As the sun rose, the British realized that they were now within range of Marion’s troops and quickly surrendered to the partisans.

What is instructive for the innovator is the concept of remote prefabrication of a solution.  Sometimes, when faced with a problem, the solution must be broken into smaller pieces and worked on separately (and even quietly) then when the pieces come together the true innovation can be seen.  A direct attack on a problem isn’t always the only way to solve it.

Marion demonstrated a similar cunning in the attack on Fort Motte in May of 1781.  Fort Motte was a private home that the British had fortified to protect one of the approaches to Charleston.  The British were well-armed and Marion had his troops dig trenches so they could get closer to the house then, instead of launching a frontal assault as would be a typical military tactic of the era, he had his troops shoot flaming arrows with burning pitch towards the roof of the house.  The British were unable to put out the fire and the resulting conflagration cleared out the home forced the British to surrender.  As was the case with the mayhem tower, Marion sought an innovative solution to achieving a military victory.

This contrasts sharply with Marion’s assault at the Battle of Quinby Bridge in July 1781.  In this confrontation, American General Thomas Sumter ordered Marion’s troops to assault a well-protected British position in a way that Marion knew would be ineffective, given the position of the various forces across the terrain and the lack of American artillery for the assault.  As expected, Marion’s forces were repulsed by the British and had to retreat.  As Aiken observes, irregulars do not perform well when they are used as traditional troops.  Marion would not have fought this battle without his field artillery or would have set up an attack when the enemy decamped.

For the innovator, the lesson here is that while it may be tempting to follow the advice and strategy of someone else in pursuing an innovation objective, the path to success is more likely to be achieved when following one’s own plan of attack.  Innovators may be less likely to succeed when operating with traditional methods.

A final lesson from Marion’s life reflects the dictum that sometimes it is better to be lucky than good.  In a story relayed by Amy Crawford, Marion’s career as a militia leader almost never even started.  In March 1780, Marion was attending a dinner party at the home of a fellow officer in Charleston and found himself locked in the house while his host and colleagues engaged in toast after toast to the American forces.  As a teetotaler, Marion felt trapped in the house and decided to escape by leaping from a second story window.  When he landed, he broke his ankle and decided to head to the countryside for rest and recuperation.  This was a lucky coincidence because in May, 1780, British troops captured Charleston and Marion would likely have been taken prisoner at that point, thus preventing the legend of the Swamp Fox from ever beginning.

As innovators, we should not discount the importance of luck in our calculations and always look for fortuitous outcomes even from seemingly bad events.  Disappointments and even failures occur more often than not in the work of an innovator, and in the case of Marion he could have seen his broken ankle as a sign he wasn’t suited to play the role of pursuing and eluding British troops all across South Carolina.  However, this injury was precisely what positioned him to achieve greatness, and his resilience, and cunning, are attributes that all innovators should embrace.


– Scott D. Aiken, The Swamp Fox: Lessons in Leadership from the Partisan Campaigns of Francis Marion (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2012).
– Amy Crawford, “The Swamp Fox: Elusive and crafty, Francis Marion outwitted British troops during the American Revolution,” The Smithsonian (June 30, 2007).

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Scott BowdenScott Bowden is a Project Executive, Innovation Program Leader at IBM Global Services.

Scott Bowden

Scott Bowden is founder and CEO of Bridgeton West, LLC, a firm consultancy focusing on historical innovation. Scott previously worked for IBM Global Services and the Independent Research and Information Services Corporation. Scott has a PhD in Government/International Relations from Georgetown University.




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