The Ancient Art of War and Business Management Excellence

Have you ever heard of Sun Tzu?  He is the source of our most famous quotes:

  • “All is fair in love and war”
  • “Keep your friends close, and your enemies closer”
  • “A leader leads by example”

In fact, Sun Tzu was actually an early business management excellence guru.  How is this possible, you ask?  Isn’t he the Chinese military genius who wrote The Art of War over 2000 years ago?  The book that is still required reading for officers in armies around the world today? (Here is an excellent summary of his book if you are interested).

Yes, Sun Tzu was an expert military strategist, but what could he possibly have in common with Peter Drucker, Steven Covey, or even academics like Henry Mintzberg?

How Business and the Military are Inherently Similar

An army has many similarities to a business.  It has generals (leaders) who plot strategy.  It has foot soldiers (front-line employees) who do the fighting, and it has officers (managers) who orchestrate how the foot soldiers execute the strategy of the generals.  Moreover, officers must adapt their tactics in the heat of battle as circumstances unfold that were unforeseen, just as managers must make decisions within businesses as exceptions arise and new information emerges.

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Of course, businesses do not seek out to kill enemy combatants, but like armies, they have objectives.  Leaders of businesses seek to maximize profits and open new markets just as generals attempt to defeat enemies with minimal loss of life and seize key supply routes.

Based on these similarities, Sun Tzu has keen insight regarding Business Management Excellence for business leaders today.

Sun Tzu recognizes that Business Management Excellence is divided into two core competencies:

  1. Leadership Management
  2. Results Management

Leadership Management is the art of plotting winning strategies and motivating employees (troops) to follow their managers in pursuit of those strategies.  In fact, in chapter 3 of his book, Sun Tzu actually prioritizes unity of the army as much more important than numerical superiority when seeking to carry the battlefield.  Leaders create unity by providing a compelling vision of how to achieve victory (the strategy) and motivating people to pursue the vision through emotional connections.

However, most of Sun Tzu’s book is dedicated to what I would call Results Management.  Results Management is simply the discipline of managers to consistently deliver results through the resources entrusted to them.  This discipline has three major components:

  • Planning
  • Executing
  • Monitoring

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Planning is the science of breaking down the path to reach an objective into actionable steps.  Leaders and managers must be able to make plans given the objectives that they want to reach.  Sun Tzu addresses numerous aspects of planning.  In fact, the very first chapter of his book is titled “Laying Plans”.  He stresses that effective planning is important to achieve any objective.

“Now the general who wins a battle makes many calculations in his temple ere the battle is fought. The general who loses a battle makes but few calculations beforehand. Thus do many calculations lead to victory, and few calculations to defeat…”

Executing is actually conducting the steps in the plan.  No battle was ever won or business objective ever accomplished without someone, or many people, executing on the tasks needed to accomplish a plan.  Sun Tzu spends significant time in his book talking about “tactical dispositions” (chapter 4) and the importance of putting plans in motion effectively.  Executing is highly linked to clarity of communication.  No one can effectively execute if the items to be accomplished are not clear.

“If words of command are not clear and distinct, if orders are not thoroughly understood, then the general is to blame. But, if orders are clear and the soldiers nevertheless disobey, then it is the fault of their officers.”

Monitoring is also a key element of results management.  Here, Sun Tzu discusses what I would call “macro” monitoring and “micro” monitoring.  In the macro sense, Sun Tzu urges leaders to have a good understanding of the state of play in their geographic areas and battlefields.  Although he encourages getting this information through espionage, his main point still applies to business leaders – know the status of your major initiatives and how the environment may affect them.  On the “micro” level, Sun Tzu Sun encourages managers (battlefield officers) to detect and adapt to changing circumstances.

“…in the midst of difficulties we are always ready to seize an advantage, we may extricate ourselves from misfortune…”

Thus, while business is not war, it shares many similarities.  There are competitors to be outmaneuvered.  There are situational hurdles to be overcome.  There are objectives to be reached through the deployment of people.  Sun Tzu may predate Peter Drucker by 2000 years, but his insights for business management excellence are still relevant today.

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Meagan M. Flores
Meagan M. Flores
Meagan M. Flores is the Vice President of Marketing for AchieveIt. A genuine 'problem-solver', when Meagan isn't nose-down in the Sunday Times crossword puzzle, you can find her leveraging her expertise spanning early stage startups to mature growth enterprises to comment trends and best practices related to strategy development and execution, leadership and revenue marketing.