Sun Tzu on strategies for effective leadership (part 4)

THIS post, part 4, considers the principles developed by Sun Tzu on strategies for effective leadership. It is the 4th and final part in a series looking at how Sun Tzu’s military precepts provide a timeless guide to modern business leadership. Part one looked at the qualities of successful leaders. Part two considered principles for organising your business affairs. Finally, part three considered the principles for dealing with business rivals.

I have summarised Sun Tzu’s principles into four simple categories:

  1. Qualities of a successful leader;
  2. Organising your business affairs;
  3. Dealing with rivals; and
  4. Strategies for effective leadership.

4. Strategies for effective leadership

4.1 Create a common philosophy

Marc Benioff, CEO of salesforce.com says that “to be truly successful, companies need to have a corporate mission that is bigger than making a profit…By integrating philanthropy into [the] business model … employees feel that they do much more than just work at [the] company.

He will win whose army is animated by the same spirit throughout all its ranks.

4.2 Foster co-operation

In order to be successful in business it is important to have many experienced employees working together in co-operation.

Adam Smith was the earliest to report the merits of specialization and cooperation some 230 years ago. He compared the output of a Scottish farmer working alone to make pins for his wife with a French pin factory’s daily production. The factory employed experienced specialists, equipped them with the latest tools and organized them to work cooperatively to produce pins. The factory turned out hundreds of times more pins per specialist per day than the farmer working alone. Moreover, the factory-made pins surpassed the farmer’s pins in terms of quality and consistency.

If two armies will help each other in a time of common peril, how much more should two parts of the same army, bound together as they are by every tie of interest and fellow-feeling. Yet it is notorious that many a campaign has been ruined through lack of co-operation…

4.3 Maintain good communication

Being well informed is the only way to make good decisions. Make sure that you have access to the latest information on who is doing what in your organization.

…the commander whose communications are suddenly threatened finds himself in a false position, and he will be fortunate if he has not to change all his plans, to split up his force into more or less isolated detachments, and to fight with inferior numbers on ground which he has not had time to prepare…

4.4 Pick your men carefully

A leader must use the skills of his employees to best advantage by using the right man in the right place.

The skilful employer of men will employ the wise man, the brave man, the covetous man, and the stupid man. For the wise man delights in establishing his merit, the brave man likes to show his courage in action, the covetous man is quick at seizing advantages, and the stupid man has no fear of death.

4.5 Control your men with kindness and discipline

If [subordinates] are punished before they have grown attached to you, they will not prove submissive; and, unless submissive, they will be practically useless. If, when [your subordinates] have become attached to you, punishments are not enforced, they will still be useless. Therefore [subordinates] must be treated in the first instance with humanity, but kept under control by means of iron discipline.

Bestow rewards without regard to rule, issue orders without regard to previous arrangements; and you will be able to handle a whole army as though you had to deal with but a single man.

4.6 Set up a dependable systems of reward and punishment

People respond to incentives, this is one of the first lessons learnt in Microeconomics 101. As such, it is important to encourage good behaviour and discourage poor behaviour with an appropriate system of reward and punishment.

…that there may be advantage from defeating the enemy they must have their rewards.

4.7 Do not micro-manage your subordinates

The art of giving orders is not to try to rectify the minor blunders and not to be swayed by petty doubts. Vacillation and fussiness are the surest means of sapping the confidence of a [company].

4.8 Foster a spirit of enterprise

Encourage your employees to be industrious and hard working.

Unhappy is the fate of one who tries to win his battles and succeed in his attacks without cultivating the spirit of enterprise for the result is waste of time and general stagnation.

Sun Tzu on the art of leadership – qualities of a successful leader

Background to The Art of War

SUN TZU wrote The Art of War in approximately 490BC in the Kingdom of Wu, China, and became a general for the King of Wu in 512 BC. For the next 39 years his precepts were followed and the Kingdom of Wu was victorious. And then, they forgot … the armies of Wu were defeated and the Kingdom made extinct.

In 1782, The Art of War was first translated into French by a Jesuit, Father Amiot. There is a legend that it was Napoleon’s key to success and his secret weapon and the first English translation was produced by P.F. Calthrop in 1905.

In reading The Art of War I have tried to think about how Sun Tzu’s military principles provide a timeless guide to modern business leadership.

Dr. Foo Check Teck, Asia’s foremost expert on Sun Tzu, says, “I found many more CEO’s and entrepreneurs, especially those who had to compete at the edge, are unconsciously applying Sun Tzu’s ping-fa (Law of Soldiering).”

The essence of business, like war, is to pursue goals and achieve success (Dr. Raymond Yeh). Success, or even your proximity to success, can make you a target to those who oppose that success, however they might choose to fight you. That is why understanding Sun Tzu’s Art of War can prove advantageous to just about anyone (Robert L. Cantrell, consultant and author of Understanding Sun Tzu on the Art of War).

I have summarised Sun Tzu’s principles into four simple categories:

  1. Qualities of a successful leader;
  2. Oranising your business affairs;
  3. Dealing with rivals; and
  4. Strategies for effective leadership.

If you’re interested in The Art of War and want to read more, check out both Sonshi.com and Wikipedia.

1. Qualities of a successful leader

1.1 Discipline

A leader must be disciplined. Having discipline includes maintaining the hierarchy within the organisation; clearly defining the specific roles and responsibilities of members of management; maintaining systems to ensure delivery of services by suppliers and payment from customers; and controlling expenditure.

I fully believe he was a good soldier, but I had him beheaded because he acted without orders.

1.2 Presence of mind

Presence of mind is the ability to stay calm and act sensibly in a crisis. This is a leader’s most important asset.

1.3 Self respect

If you do not respect yourself, your men will not respect you. If your men do not respect you, they will be unresponsive to orders and will delight in undermining your authority and reputation.

1.4 Wisdom, sincerity and good faith

If your decisions are well thought out and you act honestly, your men will trust you. If you are trusted, people will speak their mind freely and openly, which means business problems can be solved more quickly and effectively.

1.5 Prompt decision making

In a competitive business environment time is always of the essence. As such, a successful leader needs to make quick decisions.

…though we have heard of stupid haste in [business], cleverness has never been seen associated with long delays.