One of the classic texts for business leaders is Sun Tzu’s The Art of War, written more than 2,500 years ago. While the text was written as a guide for military leaders in gaining strategic advantages in combat, the lessons are easily applied to the business world. With 13 chapters focused on a different aspect of war and military strategy, The Art of War is presented in a poetic fashion, which has left its lessons somewhat open to interpretation. This feature is what has made the text a perennial favorite among politicians, sports coaches, and entrepreneurs. Here are some of the most important lessons found in The Art of War:
Treat everyone with respect.
Sun Tzu says that leaders need to treat all members of their armies with “benevolence, justice, and righteousness,” which in turn drives loyalty, respect, and unity. Leaders need to recognize that all members of their team have value and remain essential to success. When team members view their work as important and meaningful, they begin to feel responsible for the success of the company. Individuals who feel recognized and appreciated work harder for their leaders and ultimately function more effectively as part of a larger team.
Use foresight to gain a competitive advantage.
One of the greatest virtues for any leader, says Sun Tzu, is to be prepared for any contingency. The best leaders keep a close eye on their competition and spend time thinking about what moves they might make and how these moves can be countered. This helps leaders to avoid being caught off-guard, a scenario that puts them in a vulnerable position. Sun Tzu emphasizes the importance of speed in obtaining a victory. When business leaders respond immediately to changes in the market, they have the chance to surprise the competition. Importantly, speed is not equivalent to haste. Something done hastily is something done sloppily. Speed requires forethought and planning.
Know the strengths and weaknesses of the competition.
According to Sun Tzu, a successful army is like a river. The flowing water avoids high places and rushes toward the lowlands. In the same way, a smart army avoids the strengths of its enemies while exploiting its weaknesses. In the West, armies often launch into direct attacks against their enemies; this approach has become popular in the business world as well. Sun Tzu speaks of a different, more strategic approach. Leaders who understand the specific strengths and weaknesses of the competition can position themselves to avoid the strengths altogether while attacking directly where the weaknesses exist. In this way, leaders minimize their use of resources while maximizing the impact of the attack. In the business world, this translates to increased profits.
Avoid destroying the market when capturing it.
Sun Tzu believed that winning 100 percent of battles is not actually a demonstration of skill. Instead, real skill is defeating the enemy without battling at all. Generals should aim to conquer states intact rather than ruining them and, similarly, business leaders should figure out how to gain a significant share of the market without completely leveling it. Often, companies can gain market share by identifying an underserved part of the market or by using subtle inroads. Leaders who try to storm a market by undercutting the prices of competitors gain a lot of attention, but they ultimately start a price war that will drain much of the profits from the market.
Understand the importance of not fighting.
In The Art of War, Sun Tzu explains that excellence is not about fighting well, but instead about breaking down enemy resistance. Leaders need to pick their battles wisely and avoid rushing into conflict whenever possible. When generals do not recognize that there is a time to fight and a time not to fight, they squander the real value of the people they lead. In the business world, leaders should not think only in terms of a win-lose battle. With strategy and timing, it is possible to create win-win results. Instead of engaging with competition, sometimes it is wiser to define a new niche, create a strategic partnership, or help increase the overall market size.
Make self-assessment a priority.
A critical aspect of excellent leadership, according to Sun Tzu, is assessing areas of improvement. This practice not only provides direction on how to become stronger in the future, but it also identifies the weaknesses that enemies might target. Success in business relies on knowing the competition and knowing the strengths and weaknesses of a leader’s own company. Too often, individuals get so caught up in keeping track of the competition that they forget to assess where they stand themselves. Business leaders have a bit of an advantage over generals in this category, as they can turn to their customers for direct and honest feedback. However, it is also important to consult with employees and perform self-assessments. Seeing how these three opinions compare can prove an eye-opening exercise.