The year was 216 B.C. The victorious Carthaginian army, led by Hannibal, walked the ground, surveying the near destruction of their rival Roman army at Cannae. About 50,000 Romans lie dead. It was one of the most horrific defeats of the Roman military.

The year was 216 B.C. The victorious Carthaginian army, led by Hannibal, walked the ground, surveying the near destruction of their rival Roman army at Cannae. About 50,000 Romans lie dead. It was one of the most horrific defeats of the Roman military.

Like many other leadership authors, I’m guilty of focusing too much on military history to illustrate leadership concepts. But I prefer to learn from achievements – and mistakes – of actual battles because the tactical maneuvers and blunders of yesterday’s military leaders are so often the same as today’s corporate leaders.

At Cannae, the Roman army was roughly twice the size of Hannibal’s army and better-equipped, and they should have won. They lost because of one factor: inflexibility. The Roman army was built around heavy infantry. Their tactic was to crush opponents by brute force. Hannibal’s army was more diverse, incorporating warriors and cavalry from various European and African clans. Surrounded by the calvary, the Roman legionaries were packed together and unable to turn and fight in multiple directions, eventually getting slaughtered. Their egotistical mindset about military organization almost destroyed the entire Roman republic.

Inflexibility has also led to the downfall of many modern businesses. Too often, leaders talk about the seven deadly words for an organization (“we’ve never done it that way before”) but fail to change deeply engrained processes or outdated policies. One of the biggest hindrances to flexibility is past success. “This is what the company was founded on” may be a true statement, but it can also blind a company from changes happening to customers and competitors. A good leader is willing to challenge everything the organization does, and courageous enough to move away from ineffective practices, products, and strategies that may have once been the lifeblood of the organization.

An example is the emergence of cloud computing and containerized data centers. These concepts are rapidly changing the traditional view of a company’s information technology needs. Some technology companies, such as Google, HP, and Sun/Oracle were quick to embrace the new concepts. Other technology companies have been slow to change, and are now fighting to gain a foothold in the emerging market.

It is risky to challenge past and current success. No CEO wants to tell the board how he or she bet the farm and lost. But let me challenge you on something. Is your organization similar to the Roman army at Cannae? Are you so focused on getting better at what you’ve always done that you’re blind to adopting new strategies? Are you listening to newer employees who may come in with fresh ideas? Does your company see you as someone willing to challenge any practice that is not yielding good results? Are you an agent of change or a caretaker of tradition?

The lesson of Cannae does not end on the fields of southeast Italy. Fourteen years later, the two armies fought another historical battle, this time on African soil just outside the city of Carthage on the plain of Zama. The situation was almost the reverse of Cannae. This time the Carthaginian army was larger, but the Romans had added 9,000 cavalry troops to their fighting force, outnumbering Hannibal’s cavalry three to one. The Roman cavalry easily routed the Carthaginian cavalry, and then returned to the field to assist the infantry battle. The Romans won the day, and as a result, forced the surrender of Carthage itself.

Rome may have lost the battle of Cannae, but they ultimately won the war because they modified their military approach (with cavalry) to better match up against the enemy. They improved by studying the successes of others. They learned from their mistakes and they implemented real change. They did what so many modern corporations fail to do: adapt.

Over the last several years, a lot of organizations have experienced difficult challenges. For some, this recession may have felt like a war. Right now, you may be working for, or leading, an organization that has been on the battlefield of Cannae. You may feel like competitors are beating you on all sides, with no way to keep up. If this is your situation, let me offer a piece of advice straight from history. Use your current struggles to spotlight areas in which you need to change, and improve. That may mean imitating the competition (there is no shame in that) or looking for new products or markets to outflank them. It could include identifying and eliminating unnecessary costs, or investment in new equipment and technology. It may even mean a different supply chain strategy, or making major changes to your organizational structure. The goal is to emerge stronger and more flexible.

The choice is yours. You can be the Roman army at Cannae. Or you can be the Roman army at Zama. You can talk about change or you can show real courage and actually lead change in your organization.