Posted by Matt Little on 29th Apr 2022

“This is the law. The purpose of fighting is to win. There is no possible victory in defense. The sword is more important than the shield, and skill is more important than either. The final weapon is the brain. All else is supplementary.” - John Steinbeck

Initiative. This is the single most important factor in ensuring victory in any arena. Gaining and maintaining initiative is key. It keeps your opponents reacting to you, fighting your fight instead of their own. Regaining it once lost is also key. It puts the fight back on your terms instead of theirs. This is as true for armies and corporations as it is for individuals.

There have been many mental frameworks used to describe the process of initiative. The most common in tactical circles is undoubtedly USAF Colonel John Boyd’s model of the OODA loop. In traditional Japanese martial arts, the concepts of “Sen” and “Go” are used to create a model explaining how to use initiative in conflict. Even the traditional CQB axiom of “speed, surprise, and violence of action” is actually an admonition to gain and maintain initiative. Let’s examine initiative and some of the best frameworks used to understand it in greater detail.

Let’s begin with the OODA loop. John Boyd was legendary as the fighter pilot who could win any dogfight in 40 seconds or less, but he was more than just that. He possessed a brilliant military mind as a strategist. He created the OODA loop as a model to understand how we win in conflict. Winning violent confrontations is about far more than just technique, resolve, or stamina. It is about employing the correct technique at the right time with initiative.

OODA stands for Observation, Orientation, Decision and Action. There is a lot more to the theories of Boyd than this simple overview, but this is the cycle we move through in conflict. We observe our environment. Then we use our prior training and experience to orient ourselves correctly to the reality around use. We then decide on our next action based on that orientation. Then comes the action phase, where we implement our decision. We then begin the cycle again.

If we can initiate our cycles before our opponent does, and move through them more rapidly, or disrupt his cycles intentionally, we gain and maintain initiative. Everyone focuses in their training on the “Act” phase of the cycle, but the other three are at least as important, if not more so. You can use this model in your training to help you understand the ways you interact with your opponents. Study this and you will be far more capable in conflict than you would otherwise.

The other of my favorite models for explaining the initiative process comes from the classical samurai arts of Japan. They used the concepts of Sen and Go to explain initiative. You can think of Sen as initiative and Go as reaction. The first category they use is simply “Sen.” Think of this as an ambush, an overwhelming and/or surprise attack. Seizing the initiative immediately then not relinquishing it until the conflict is over.

The second category is “Go no Sen.” This is a counterattack that regains the initiative from the opponent. In its crudest and least desirable form, it is purely responsive in nature. In its best application it is luring the enemy into a specific attack in order to deliver your counter. You can do this by creating an opening for the opponent’s attack, or feigning a specific weakness.

The third category is “Sen no Sen.” This is using a feint to set up your true attack. Your feint has to be convincing enough that the opponent reacts to it, creating the opening you need for your actual attack. In the case of a skilled opponent, you may need a series of attacks to set up your opening. The whole point is to lure them in to the position you find advantageous.

The final and most sophisticated category is “Sen Sen no Sen.” This is the preemptive strike at the opponent’s moment of preparation. Think of the boxer who reads his opponent’s intent and lands his punch before the other fighter can deliver his. This is when the cop or CCW holder reads the situation well enough to draw his weapon before the opponent does.

Both of these models help you understand initiative and how to apply it. If you truly understand this, you will be much more effective at handling all kinds of conflict. These concepts apply universally. They are as relevant to business and legal matters as they are to battlefield strategy and civilian self defense. Study this thoroughly in your training, and learn to apply the principle of initiative in all aspects of your life.