The more things change the more their essence stays the same. Strategies and tactics that delivered competitive advantage in ancient China provide sound advice for contemporary business leaders. It is true that technology has changed out of all recognition but it would seem that humans haven’t. Significant facets of success remain the social, and the psychological. Critical thinking and the fundamentals of strategy are as valuable today as they ever were.
Conflict and competition are central to the human condition. Success comes when we apply our mind to improve the quality of our decisions. Sun Tzu sets out the foundation of strategy:
Unity of will is the key to success. In business terms this equates to the power of the brand proposition. It must be differentiated to drive strong beliefs and faith in you, your business or product. It is the emotional glue.
Sun Tzu “The Way means inducing the people to have the same aim as the leadership, so they will share death and share life, without fear of danger.”
Let your generals lead and avoid micro-management. If managers are employed to do a job – let them do it to the best of their ability. Do not instruct them on what to do.
Sun Tzu “Those whose generals are able and are not constrained by their governments are victorious.”
Patience and timing
Pick your battles and win the marketing war.
Sun Tzu “When the enemy is fulfilled, be prepared against them; When they are strong, avoid them.”
Know yourself, your customers and your competition. Use data to derive knowledge.
Sun Tzu “When you know both yourself and others you are never in danger, when you know yourself but not others – you have half a chance of winning, and when you know neither yourself nor others you are in danger in every battle.”
“In ancient times skilful warriors first made themselves invincible, and then watched for vulnerability in others.”
“Victories are not flukes because they position themselves where they will surely win, prevailing over those who have already lost.”
“The rules of the military are five: measurement, assessment, calculation, comparison and victory.”
Sun Tzu “The skilled fill their people with energy – while the incompetent drain their people of energy. Those who are skilled in combat do not become angered, those who are skilled at winning do not become afraid. Thus the wise win before they fight, while the ignorant fight to win.”
“Leadership is a matter of intelligence, trustworthiness, humaneness, courage, and sternness.”
“The individualist without strategy who takes opponents lightly will inevitably become the captive of others.”
Sun Tzu “The Tao of military operations lies in harmonizing people. When people are in harmony they will fight naturally, without being exorted to do so. If the officers and soldiers are suspicious of each other, warriors will not join up. If loyal advice is not heard, small minds will talk and criticise in secret. When hypocracy sprouts, even if you have the wisdom of the ancient warrior kings you could not defeat a peasant, let alone a crowd of them.”
Sun Tzu “The one who figures on victory at headquarters before doing battle is the one with the most strategic factors on his side. The one with many strategic factors in his favour wins, the one with few strategic factors loses.”
Above all the essence of the Sun Tzu approach to strategy is one of balance: in war, in business and in life – as the I Ching says, “If you take on too much without a solid foundation, you will eventually be drained, leaving you with embarrassment and bad luck.”
In our driven, digital time these are wise, wise words indeed.