Sun Tzu was a revered military philosopher of ancient China, and author of "The Art of War". He is certainly still essential reading for military commanders, but is the ancient wisdom of Sun Tzu still relevant to 21st century business leaders?
It can be, if the relevant aspects are "cherry picked" from his work and applied intelligently. To dive into the entire work can be a little too ethereal for many but the basic principles are timeless and arguably apply to any competitive activity.
Business is also not literally a "war", but it does share many similarities with military activity. It is a competitive environment where those that better exploit opportunities, make decisions and leverage advantage will win. There are also very specific outcomes that need to be accomplished with limited time, space and resources.
The insights of Sun Tzu are not exactly "rocket science" as they say, nor should they be total revelations to any good leader, but then who doesn't need a philosophical reminder of the basics occasionally? Their earthy simplicity, like the insights of Covey in the modern era, probably account for the longevity that they have enjoyed.
Sun Tzu said that “most battles are often won before they are fought”.
He urged the relentless pursuit of individual and team mastery well before seeking battle. When the battle itself comes, then nothing short of 'excellence in execution' will help to avert defeat.
Amongst other approaches, he focused upon 5 simple factors, and he felt that the leader and team who mastered these 5 factors best would be the one that would prevail.
1. The Moral Law (the culture and morale of a team)
Sun Tzu emphasised the value of building solid relationships with your troops, advocates and allies whilst creating an environment that is conducive to understanding, harmony and unity. A thorough understanding of individual and collective strengths and weaknesses is critical for averting unnecessary friction when the pressure is on. Sun Tzu emphasised that a leader should command and direct the efforts of their team with integrity, honour and skill. Being in possession of a strong culture, a common sense of "this is how we work together here", was an important factor indeed for Sun Tzu.
2. Heaven (elements that exert an influence upon you, but are unexpected or beyond your control)
Sun Tzu advocated for great flexibility and cultivation of abilities for dealing with crisis and rapid change. Is your team prepared for unexpected forces beyond your control? What could interrupt your plans? Do you have well thought out contingencies in place to deal with unexpected threats or a crisis? Whichever army could react most effectively to exploit changes and seize new opportunities that may actually arise from chaos also had a distinct advantage for Sun Tzu. Have all contingencies been properly scoped by your team to allow for ongoing flexibility? How well does the team understand its "cognitive biases" that will arise under pressure, and are their strategies to manage them?
3. Earth (the things that are known / that you can see, influence and plan for such as terrain or infrastructure)
Have you mastered and understood the things that are actually within your grasp to study and prepare for? For example, cultivating a deep and genuine knowledge of your own team members, your technology and the terrain in which you operate? Have you planned well using not just good situational intelligence and feedback, but also by fully exploiting the knowledge and experience within your own team? Which army has the better plan? Master the tools of your own trade and plan well.
4. Command (the qualities and commitment of both the senior and junior leadership
Leaders and troops must be working harmoniously with well planned (yet flexible) strategies and tactics to enable common objectives to be approached in a unified way. Can the leadership also make good decisions? Which army has the best leadership? Leading by strength, example and understanding was important to Sun Tzu and it was an important factor irrespective of the size of an Army or any technological advantages it may possess. As M De Saxe once said "it's not the big armies that win wars, it's the good ones".
5. Doctrine (compliance with sound and well-devised policies and procedures)
Sun Tzu would observe whether or not good systems, policies and training approaches were being used in the most efficient, effective and flexible way. He felt this would ensure that troops and officers are maximizing opportunities with all possible resources at hand in support of their strategic and tactical aims. Which army has the best training and standards? "Train Hard – Fight Easy" is a phrase often used within the Australian Army.
Sun Tzu often said that "most battles are won before they are fought" and that he could easily and accurately predict the outcome of a battle based upon how well these five factors were applied by the respective combatants.
Warfare, like business, is an activity waged within an extremely competitive environment where “good” is often not “good enough” and where you quite simply have to be “great” to triumph!
Two of Sun Tzu's most well known quotes are …
“Know yourself, know your enemy, and you need never fear the outcome of 100 battles”.
“To win without fighting is the supreme skill”
Understand your own strengths, allowable and non-allowable weaknesses to determine the best possible deployment of people and resources.
Plan well by understanding the nature of the challenges at hand and then exploit both your own strengths and your opponents weaknesses to achieve your aims.
A superb strategy and the execution of individual missions as an integral part of a that overall strategy can actually win a battle before it’s fought, and even help avoid many battles.
Failure to execute with excellence in any part of the total team can result in the entire unit losing the advantage and then facing a hard fight indeed just to keep up.
As an occasional reminder of some of the basics then, perhaps Sun Tzu still has his place amongst other management and leadership gurus?
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