Sun Tzu was a Chinese general allegedly born in 540 BC. His book The Art of War has been used as a road map for military strategy ever since it was written and over the centuries the learnings have been adopted and adapted for use in politics, business and everyday life.
The Art of War is a relatively easy book to read and especially worthwhile as we face yet another year of change and the unknown. To get you started we would like to share our interpretation of some of the central concepts for you to consider as you try to take control of your businesses, teams, careers and lives over the coming months.
1. Maintain awareness
“If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.”
To win in any area of business or life, knowledge and understanding is essential. In particular, you need to exhibit honesty and awareness when considering the strengths and weaknesses of your organisation, industry, team, competitors, leadership and self. Ask yourself: what can we leverage? Where are our pain points or weakest links? Fear, arrogance, ego, pride, bias, stupidity and laziness are all enemies of awareness. Invest time and resources in research and understanding. Test hypotheses and consider alternative perspectives. Lack of skills, desire or time to understand your environment can often lead to failure.
2. Take timely action and make timely decisions
Leaders are paid for their ability to make timely and effective decisions. In war, in business and during a global pandemic, leaders have been challenged in this area.
Every day we make hundreds of decisions, from insignificant to catastrophic, without history, past learnings or context, with insufficient information, with unrealistic deadlines, a lack of resources and often with extreme levels of emotion.
- learn the skill of making decisions in chaotic environments
- assemble experts around them with the knowledge and experience to help them make those decisions
- are confident enough to show their vulnerability and ask for help
- inspire others to follow.
Dwight D. Eisenhower was the 34th president of the United States from 1953 until 1961. Before becoming president, Eisenhower served as a general in the United States army and as the Allied Forces Supreme Commander during World War II. As a general and president, Eisenhower had to make critical, tough and quick decisions, leading him to invent the world-famous Eisenhower Matrix, which today helps us prioritise by urgency and importance.
The principles of this model are simple to understand but, as with many models, harder to master and implement.
3. Attack with strategy, not emotion
Great leaders plan and do not make emotional decisions. In his book, Sun Tzu gives the following example:
“T’ai Wu commanded 100,000 troops. According to custom, T’ai Wu, an emperor, asked the Sung General, Tsang Chih, for some wine. However, he was sent a pot of urine instead. T’ai Wu was so angry that he immediately attacked the city. Thirty days later, more than half of T’ai Wu’s army was dead. It is the leader’s role to remain calm even when they have overwhelming emotions. The leader should be in control of both their emotions and their troops’ emotions.”
Tsang Chih was strategic. He understood that his army was outnumbered. He used his knowledge of T’ai Wu’s arrogance, pride and ego to unnerve his opponent and push him to make rash and emotional decisions. He used strategy, not tactics or force, to win.
In our businesses, careers and lives, how many times do we make emotional decisions without sufficient planning or thinking, for example, applying for a new role because we have had a bad day? Not hiring the best person for the business because of unconscious or conscious assumptions or biases? Making business decisions from fear and based only on past experience, without any recognition of changes in circumstance? Sometimes it pays to slow down in order to go faster!
4. Prioritise communication and clarity
“As a leader, you should aim to create well-organized units out of your troops. If done correctly, you can skilfully manage your individual troops into a single force. This unity can be the factor that helps you overcome a more loosely managed opponent.”
In the context of 21st-century business this concept can be understood as clarity of vision and concise communication. This means that every person within an organisation understands the vision or purpose of the organisation, the impact or contribution they can make as an individual and in their role, the specific actions and activities they are accountable for, when and how to execute them, and what success looks like.
Whether in business, career or life in general, how many of us are confident in our understanding of each of these factors? If you are not, perhaps it is time to spend some time with your manager or writing your career plan.
5. Pursue innovation and diversity
“Nothing is more difficult than the art of manoeuvre.”
Sun Tzu calls this manoeuvring; we call this innovation. It is critical to keep your competitors on their toes by developing new ways of handling problems or achieving goals. The approach of stubbornly sticking to what you know has worked in the past and denying the possibility of change merely gives your competitors the road map to beat you. This manoevring approach can also be taken in your career. How are you perceived by your manager and key stakeholders in the business, and how is this impacting your career and future success? What can you do differently to highlight your development, strengths and value to the organisation?
6. Understand your blind spots as a leader
In Chapter 8 of The Art of War Sun Tzu says that when an army is beaten or a battle lost, it will always be due to one of the five factors below. Failure in business is the outcome of leaders not heeding these key principles.
- Being reckless and impatient leads to destruction.
- Showing cowardice and fear leads to eventual capture.
- A hasty temper means one can be baited and provoked.
- A high standard of honour means one might be susceptible and sensitive to shame.
- Excessive compassion for the troops might make a general second-guess their decisions instead of focusing on victory.
7. Allocate time to think and plan
While this is not specifically outlined in Sun Tzu’s writings, it is strongly implied. Far too many of us are too busy being busy. Our time is absorbed by meetings, emails, administration, fighting fires and fixing problems, procrastinating and reacting. Successful people spend ten hours a week or two hours every workday just thinking1. Warren Buffett, one of the richest men in the world (worth $115 billion in 2022), reads a minimum of 500 pages a day. He says reading gives him information but also sparks ideas.
If you would like to find out more about how we can help you utilise the strategies outlined here to develop your team, your career and your leadership, as well as drive sustainable business success, contact us today.