Sun Tzu, The Art of War for Executives, by Donald Krause, London: Nicholas Brealey Publishing, 1995
All our attitudes have to do with relationship, the way we relate to ourselves and to others; since relationship is an art, building an attitude is an art. The wisdom that attitude is an expression of character is age-old and part of the unique teaching of Sun Tzu, the author of the famous book The Art of War.
2500 years ago Sun-Tzu (544-496 BC) developed a philosophy based on attitude rather than belief. Sun-Tzu was primarily thinking of warfare, and he observed that the great general Pan Lo followed principles for mastering what he called The Art of War. Sun-Tzu, inspired by Pan Lo’s ideas, wrote a book with the same title, and this book, that was long overlooked, is today considered as a foremost leadership manual.
In fact, the principles Sun-Tzu presented and elaborated have found to be universal; and quite surprisingly, they also have been seen to cover the art of peace, or the art of relationship. It can be said that business is an art, too, and this art is akin to the art of relationship. Business is relationship. When we are in business, we are in relationship with each other.
In the introduction to his book, Donald Krause first outlines Sun Tzu’s principles of warfare. They are:
- Learn to fight
- Show the way
- Do it right
- Know the facts
- Expect the worst
- Seize the day
- Burn the bridges
- Do it better
- Pull together
- Keep them guessing
The author discusses these principles more in detail in the annex of the book. The book itself, its main part, however consists of the adaptation the author made of the book for the world of business. This become clear when you skim over the contents, for they have pretty little to do with war. This is the unique transposition, as it were, of Sun Tzu’s book for business; it must be seen that it’s a metaphor and doesn’t imply that the world of business is ‘eternal war.’
To assume what would be a misunderstanding not only of Krause’s book but also of Sun Tzu’s original: when Sun Tzu made his famous dictum that ‘to maintain peace is to be prepared for war’, he did not mean to run through life with a basically aggressive attitude. He meant that preparedness is what makes the Warrior and a warrior is a person who is basically at peace with himself and the world, and who has developed self-discipline and masters his emotional nature. This is not something unique in Sun Tzu’s teaching, by the way. It is the profound message of the I Ching as well, especially in hexagram 63 (After Completion) where the old wisdom book advises to safeguard and protect what has been achieved instead of being careless and wasteful at the end of one’s victory.
Thus, in the time of success and accomplishment, when one has finally reached one’s goals, one must be especially watchful so that decay and decline not will set in.
This is a basic principle in the systemic and holistic view of life that the I Ching fosters. It is also expressed in part in other hexagrams. Thus, when we situate Sun Tzu’s teachings on war in the right cultural context, we see that they are not as unusual and ‘paradoxical’ as they may sound to modern readers. From that point of departure, the author’s idea to extrapolate these principles to the world and strategic environment of business appears to be sound and organic.
Strangely, the book does not contain a Table of Contents, so I will outline the structure here. The author explains he wanted to replicate the 13-Chapters Structure of the original Art of War by Sun Tzu which is a good idea:
- Competitive Action
- Competitive Strategy
- Opportunity and Timing
- Managing Direct Conflict
- Types of Competitive Situations and Causes of Failure
- Competitive Conditions and Offensive Strategy
- Destroying Reputation
- Gathering Intelligence
This is a highly readable book on principles that are age-old and have proven their value uncountable times in both the war and the business setting. The book is well written and to the point, and the extrapolation of those ancient principles to the modern business setting is a unique accomplishment of the author.
In all my years of work as a corporate trainer in South-East Asia I have found many similar books on those same principles—as that’s one of the most fashionable topics in the Asian business culture (which after all is based on age-old Chinese business principles)—but I found that none of them was written in the same vein of accuracy and welcome puritanism (to keep out the many superstitious beliefs that were rampant in the ancient popular Chinese Taoist culture).
I do agree with any objection that it’s far-fetched to apply business principles from the Far East to modern technological societies, but that’s a trend you need to watch and follow—if you agree with this tendency or not, for it’s a fact, and the trend will strengthen and the principles adapted from Eastern culture will influence as more in the future, not less.