When pursuing victory, one of the most counter-instinctual things to do is to retreat. It goes against our nature to step back when momentum seems to be carrying us forward. Yet there are many examples of this strategy working. During Sunday’s Super Bowl, with their team on the edge of victory, the Ravens special teams unit was told to prepare to take a safety and thus give the 49ers two unearned points. Given the competitive nature of professional athletes, that had to be a bitter pill to swallow. Punter Sam Koch has never been charged with a safety — it’s the sort of thing a good punter generally avoids — but he followed orders and danced in the end zone for eight precious seconds before the 49ers caught on and forced him out of bounds. The result was that the 49ers did not have time to score and the Ravens won the championship.
Sometimes retreating to win plays out in the realm of business, like when a conglomerate spins off various brands that no longer relate to its core mission. Or when the post office decides not to deliver bills (or anything other than packages) on Saturdays. Unlike most businesses, the U.S. Postal Service is subject to the capricious whims of Congress, which has created requirements that make it hard for that amazing national system of sorting and delivery to adjust to competition from the Internet, FedEx and UPS. Naturally there’s a lot of debate about whether the Postal Service has the authority to change its hours and whether or not this move will damage its network irreparably. It’s possible that canceling Saturday service is a ploy to force Congress to pass a reform package. But for now, Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe says that such a retreat is the responsible thing to do to preserve the future of the postal service.
In other words, a small retreat now serves a greater good later. Just ask George Washington, whose use of strategic retreats preserved the Continental Army for later victories. Similarly, women fighting for the right to vote retreated from yearly petitions to the U.S. Congress to small referendum victories, state by state.
I don’t know the exact number of States we shall have to have…. but I do know that there will come a day when that number will automatically and resistlessly act on the Congress of the United States to compel the submission of a federal suffrage amendment. And we shall recognize that day when it comes.
— Susan B. Anthony
For examples in popular culture, check out Downton Abbey’s Dowager Countess of Grantham, who seems to know exactly which battles are worth fighting, which must be conceded and which must simply be ignored.