Tuesday, 8 May 2012

The Classics Club - The Art of War

One of the well-known books on the subject, The Art of War by Sun Tzu is probably the first of its kind to touch upon a subject so hostile from a managerial perspective.  War - or rather any type of conflict, as I got out of this book - is business, and as such it should be organised in a serious, non-emotional manner.  

Even though it was written in 400 B.C., the book still holds truths that can be applicable in today's fast-pacing world.  And while one could say that it talks about common sense, I would respond that in many situations of conflict common sense gives way to emotions, and it all goes downhill from then on...

Sun Tzu starts with the universal truth of the surprise attack.  There is no better attack that when you are unexpected: "... when able to attack, we must seem unable; when using our forces, we must seem inactive".  Simple, yet effective - the element of surprise will earn more points than an obvious preparation for "war". In today's world, it goes even beyond that - an obvious preparation will actually work against you and crash  you down - it's a mistake that must never be made.

Second, we have the organisational part of the conflict: "... the general who wins a battle makes many calculations in his temple ere the battle is fought".  Sounds obvious?  It is certainly not.  How many times, our emotions get the best of us, and we throw ourselves in the battle, be it in a work environment or at home, only to use up all of our energy and resources before we can even think of reaching a victorious end...  However choked we feel, a cool head is required to plan out the way out of a conflict situation - while at home, the end result may be something less of what was expected, at work it may even result in a co-worker profiting from all our trouble - not a nice thought, is it?

Then, we have the essence: results, not words: "in war, then, let your great object be victory, not lengthy campaigns" - isn't it a sign of our times -- people marching constantly for or against something?  the fact that they are seen in the process towards a goal gives the impression that they've achieved that goal?  I'm afraid this is not how things work:  do more, speak less - the actions will speak for me soon enough...

Do your homework: "if you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles.  If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat.  If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle".  A truth that will remain so even in future times, as it shows and prepares you for the road to follow...

Cater  to the situation: "He who can modify his tactics in relation to his opponent and thereby succeed in winning, may be called a heaven-born captain".  No one-size fits all in situations of conflict - Be well prepared to the specific opponent - each has their own weaknesses / likes / dislikes that will show the path to a faster, easier victory.

Sun Tzu also develops the characteristics of a good general, a good leader (in situations of a group):  they should be advancing in a conflict situation for the greater good and their own petty interest; in addition, they should be able to retreat without fearing disgrace - the image of modern politicians instantly came to mind, and I could see how true this statement is - and how we lack good leaders... A good leader/general should treat his team/army first with humanity, but keeping them under control by means of iron discipline.   The fact that we move towards a war/conflict zone, should not make us inhuman.  Here is my first disappointment in Sun Tzu's teachings, as I cannot remember any recent war where humanity was a basic element - in most cases, it was actually absent.  Even in highly competitive work areas, the fact of showing human traits is considered a deficiency, as it proves that you are weak...

And so Sun Tzu goes on and names the specific days that will determine the kind of approach to be followed, as well as the specific land formations that will influence the method to react.  All fine and well, but I couldn't see their current application in situations of conflict.  I rather think this is just a repetition of the universal notion of catering to the specific situation.

Last but not least, I was intrigued by this thought:  Sun Tzu indicates all the traits a gifted leader should possess in order to win a weak opponent and the paths to follow according to various situations.  What happens, however, when the opponent is an equivalent of oneself? When they will react exactly as we do and there's no competitive advantage?


  1. I haven't finished Sun Tzu's Art of War, but it's in my reading list (and my phone). The Chinese's books of war are usually good. I personally love Zhuge Liang, but haven't had the chance to read it myself.

    1. I will have to look into that, thanks for the recommendation!

  2. I've nominated you for a Versatile Blogger Award. Collect it here: http://doctoratehousewife.com/2012/05/09/the-versatile-blogger-award/




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