Sun Tzu was a Chinese military general and strategist. His work The Art of War, written around 500BC, has been widely regarded as an influential text for hundreds of centuries.
Now, we’re not suggesting you enter the office in full armour prepared for battle or embark on any of his suggestions of spying on the enemy, but The Art of War does have some very relevant lessons which we can apply to business.
After all, it is said that Sun Tzu was the first to suggest the SWOT analysis concept, something that is used worldwide today.
The Art of War is a dense and lengthy text, with hundreds of quotes compiled into 13 chapters, or ‘lessons’.
In today’s blog post, we are going to outline our own take on a few of our favourites of Sun Tzu’s lessons, and our interpretations on how they can be applied to business.
“The Commander stands for the virtues of wisdom, sincerity, benevolence, courage and strictness”
This is a great lesson which we try to keep at the forefront of everything we do. If you identify your morals and virtues, especially as a leader, those around you will follow suit. Be strict with your virtues – don’t allow yourself to, for example, do something in business which isn’t sincere as you’ll regret it.
“though we have heard of stupid haste in war, cleverness has never been associated with long delays”
Find the right balance of timings. Don’t hurry into decisions or rush through tasks, but on the flip side, don’t unnecessarily drag things out. Bear in mind the fast pace with which business markets are developing. In order to keep up with the ever-changing competition, new opportunities must be carried out swiftly and succinctly.
“if you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle”
Take the time to discover your goal, your reason why you’re aiming for it, and the change you want to make in the world. Sun Tzu refers to the ‘enemy’ throughout his text. The very nature of business revolves around competing with rivalling businesses – in this case the ‘enemy’. In the process of building a business it is important to also scout out the competition, what you admire about them and what you want to avoid. It’s pretty much impossible to succeed in business unless you have done this.
“standing on the defensive indicates insufficient strength; attacking, a superabundance of strength”
Sun Tzu is telling us not to be passive. As a business, lack of new ideas and content, lacking communication with the public, and not being proactive all suggests an inability to perform. If you stay present and visible with clients, consumers and the public, you will be simultaneously growing your business and success.
“Energy may be likened to the bending of a crossbow; decision, to the releasing of a trigger”
Making a quick decision is easy; it is the energy and planning that has gone into it which is the precious part. Yes, planning takes effort and control (much like the pulling back of a crossbow) but it will pay off. Amount of effort put into business development has a strong correlation to the success.
“when he utilises combined energy, his fighting men become as it were like unto rolling stones”
Working as a team is invaluable. Combining ideas, passions and skills as a workforce can boost productivity enormously. Team unity can help generate momentum and spirit. No single person is responsible; a team effort is important.
“whoever is first in the field and awaits the coming of the enemy, will be fresh for the fight; whoever is second in the field and has to hasten to battle will arrive exhausted”
Always be ready and early, whether that means turning up for work early to be ready to start the day on time or being prepped and prepared for an upcoming meeting. Not only will you feel more confident for the tasks ahead, but you will be able to double check everything.
“If he sends reinforcements everywhere, he will be weak”
We’ve all heard of the phrase, ‘quality not quantity’, and here Sun Tzu is reinforcing this. It is best to focus on a fewer number of services, jobs or tasks, and do them really well, than produce lots of half-hearted work.
“we cannot enter into alliances until we are acquainted with the designs of our neighbours”
If you’re going to team up with someone, make sure you are both on the same wavelength. Joining forces and utilising different skillsets, more creativity and ideas can be a fantastic way to create something great. Take the time beforehand, however, to really get to know each other’s personalities and goals, as well as laying down any rules for working together and the roles you will play.
“the art of war teaches us not to rely on the likelihood of the enemy’s not coming, but on our own readiness to receive him”
Rather than hoping for the downfall of others to get ahead, go out there and decide your own fortune! This quote draws onto the previously mentioned importance of both preparation and being pro-active.
“if soldiers are punished before they have grown attached to you, they will not prove submissive; and, unless submissive, they will be practically useless”
As a leader, you need to earn trust and respect from the workforce before you can expect them to obey you. Although the tough love approach can sometimes be helpful, in general
“if in training soldiers commands are habitually enforced, the army will be well-disciplined; if not, its discipline will be bad”
This quote can be applied to all areas of life. Sun Tzu is recognising the importance of habits. By making something a habit, you will eliminate the need to be told what to do. This in turn will establish yourself as a capable and well-disciplined individual.
“the general who advances with coveting fame and retreats without fearing disgrace, whose only thought is to protect his country and do good service for his sovereign, is the jewel of the kingdom”
Don’t get carried away with popularity and reputation. If you place your efforts and intentions on providing a good service, the effects will naturally follow. You will gain a good reputation simply from doing the right thing.
“carefully study the well-being of your men, and do not overtax them”
Despite seeming rather strict and ruthless, this quote shows Sun Tzu touching on something that we certainly admire – valuing the well-being of employees (or soldiers in his case!). If your employees, or those you are a leader for, are struggling, consider your treatment of them. Putting extra pressure on them to perform may actually produce the opposite of the desired effect. You can read more on our views on putting employee wellbeing first here.
“the enlightened ruler lays his plans well ahead; the good general cultivates his resources”
A combination of preparing well in advance, and utilising resources lays a path to success. Creating something worthwhile takes time and careful preparation.
“what enables the wise sovereign and the good general to strike and conquer, and achieve things beyond the reach of ordinary men, is foreknowledge”
Do your research! Make sure you are prepared for all possible outcomes of your business plans, long and short term. Of course, some things are unexpected and unchangeable – no one is superhuman! But gathering information and advice can help make the process smoother.
I’m sure you can now agree that despite perhaps being a little intense, Sun Tzu really does have some great advice and morals! Despite being thousands of years old, the fundamentals of teamwork and leadership have stayed the same. Above all, staying true to your values, and combining those values with others to create supportive teamwork, is vital for success.