You have been trying for years to implement a new competitive strategy, but you've only managed to nibble around the edges. Suddenly, you get an insight: Instead of approaching the market directly, you try an indirect plan of attack by offering something as bait to bring customers to you. Lured by your offer, the customers come. And they stay. Your new approach leads to success.

You have trotted out a Trojan Horse.

The Trojan Horse is a triumph of competitive strategy. Originally, it was a plan to give opponents a gift in exchange for access that, in the end, proved fatal to the opponent. Nowadays, though, it need only represent an exchange of information that offers leverage, which in turn lets you sell another product or service.

We live in a Trojan Horse world.

For business leaders the question is how best to win in such an environment. Answers can be found by revisiting the original story.

The Greek army invaded Troy to get back Helen, a Greek queen who had run off with a Trojan prince. The Trojans refused to return her, and so the Greeks tried to capture the city of Troy, but it was an impregnable fortress. The war went on for 10 years until finally the Greeks came up with a new idea. They evacuated their camp and pretended to go home. As a "gift," they left behind a huge wooden statue of a horse that concealed 30 Greek warriors inside. After a fierce debate, the Trojans decided to bring the horse within the city walls. They then celebrated victory. That night, while the Trojans partied, the Greeks exited the horse and opened the gates, allowing the entire Greek army to enter the city. The Greek forces proceeded to sack Troy, and Helen went home to her husband. Where 10 years of fighting failed, a clever ruse succeeded.

It sounds like a simple story, but it was a stroke of strategic genius that took effort to pull off. And there are important business and marketing lessons to be learned from it.

1. Bet on the right horse

The Trojan Horse was filled with Greeks, but its form was purely Trojan. The Trojans were horse dealers, and the horse was their national symbol. So the Greeks knew their market, and they chose a product that was sure to suit the target audience.

2. Erode your enemies' (competitors') confidence

Good leaders know how to capitalize on their team's strengths and the enemy's weakness. No one knew that better than Odysseus, the only Greek to go behind enemy lines on a mission inside Troy (think competitive intel). Although the Trojans were safe behind their walls, they were exhausted, he discovered. The genius of Odysseus was to devise an attack not on the enemy's walls but on its will.

3. Get your team to 'think different'

A strategist's first target is his own team. Entrenched interests always resist innovation. To trick the Trojans with the Horse, Odysseus had to first persuade the Greeks to disrupt their entire way of war. They were macho warriors who gloried in individual combat on the battlefield; the challenge for Odysseus was to convince them to "think different." He had to sell the idea of working together in a group, and not a particularly heroic one.

How did Odysseus do it? His greatest ally was failure. After 10 years of costly fighting, the Greeks were little short of desperate. Odysseus was an innovator, and failure is the innovator's friend.

4. Recruit the best people—and provide leadership

A leader needs not only a good plan but also the right people to execute it. Odysseus found them, starting with Epeius, the master craftsman he enlisted to build the horse. In only three days Epeius constructed a luxury item made of the finest pine, with obsidian and amber eyes, ivory teeth, a real-horsehair crest, and polished bronze hooves. In short, the Trojan Horse was a Porsche or Ferrari, not a Ford.

Odysseus also recruited an elite of warrior commanders (managers) to wait inside the Horse.

Finally, Odysseus didn't only talk the talk: He put on his armor and led the mission, putting his own life at risk.

5. Don't be tempted to abandon the plan, even if you meet resistance

Hard missions test even the most steadfast of leaders. Having passed the test of skeptical Trojans, who wheeled the horse into their city, the Greeks faced their greatest danger: Their own wandering queen, Helen, saw through the ruse; she went up to the horse and called out to the Greek commanders, imitating the voice of each man's wife. One man was about to answer her but Odysseus quickly silenced him—by smothering him. The secret held firm, and the Greeks went on to success and the conquest of Troy.

There will always be temptations to give in when on a difficult pursuit. Success requires sacrifices, even painful ones. A good leader knows that and is ready to do what is necessary.

* * *

So if you are going to foil your competitors and achieve your goals, you must know the market, go after targets of opportunity rather than strongholds, convince your leadership team to accept the disruption of its usual model, recruit the best people and share their sacrifices, and avoid the temptation to give up when the going gets tough.

Today's business targets present the same kind of challenge that produced the Trojan Horse—and led to a legendary success.

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Disruptive Marketing Lessons From the Trojan Horse

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image of Barry Strauss

Barry Strauss is a professor of history and classics at Cornell University and an expert on leadership in an organizational setting. He's the series editor of the Princeton History of the Ancient World, author of six books (the most recent is The Death of Caesar), and a leading expert on ancient military history.