5 december 2002

Sun Tzu

Introduction

Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War” is time and again associated with success and perhaps that is why it has become a required reading at many western business schools
[1]. This book was, is, and will continue to be very influential, as people use paragraphs from this opus regularly.


The Warring states period (403-221 BC)
During this period several kingdoms compete with each other for domination, while in the end only one kingdom survives: Qin state. During this period there is brutal warfare, cavalry replaces the war chariot, and there is the invention of crossbow
[2].

In this age Sun Tzu – author of the Chinese classic Ping-fa (“The Art of War”), the earliest known study on war and military science – lives. The book is attributed to Sun Tzu (personal name Sun Wu), supposedly a military strategist and general who served the state of Wu (Encyclopædia Britannica).

Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War”
Even though Sun Tzu is widely admired in the Far East, his work is less known in the West than for example Karl von Clausewitz, a great Prussian military strategist. The reason is that Sun Tzu’s work is very theoretical and instructs us little about actual procedures.

Or, as professor Michael I. Handel (who was an internationally recognized expert on, and interpreter of, the thought of the German philosopher of war Karl von Clausewitz. He also consulted with the U.S. military in planning the use of deception against Iraq in the 1991 Desert Storm war) put it: “Eastern Psychology and Western Mechanics”
[3].

At military academies, students read 2,000-year-old ideas of Julius Caesar and Sun Tzu. Nowadays students complain that there is too much emphasis on old theory and little studying on the likely shape of future wars
[4]. Given that “The Art of War” was originally written in Chinese, texts generally are very flexible in its interpretation.

It is clear that the reader of “The Art of War” has much room to interpret and apply Sun Tzu’s work. Still, multinationals use “The Art of War” in their strategic planning. After all, Sun Tzu emphasized the importance of flexibility, speed and timing in the successful pursuit of war
[5]. Through excellent preparation, future opportunities can be seized.

Many countries around the world are in a recession now, and countless businesses are struggling to keep their profit margins as high as possible. What should executives do under these harsh circumstances?

X. Terrain
25. Look upon your soldiers as your own beloved sons,
and they will stand by you even unto death.
[6]
Cary Cooper, a professor at the Manchester School of Management, says that companies “need to re-establish the psychological contract between employer and employee”, a contract that has been eroded by the downsizing of the early 1990s and by the changed attitudes of younger employees to what is fashionably called the work-life balance”.
[7]

In other words, the relationship between most companies and workers needs to be changed – mostly emotionally. This can be achieved by following the well known proverb: "Rule a great state (corporation) as you cook a small fish". Be gentle and friendly towards your staff, and they will be gracious in return.

Or: Plan for what is difficult while it is easy, do what is great while it is small. The most difficult things in the world must be done while they are still easy, the greatest things in the world must be done while they are still small. For this reason sages never do what is great, and this is why they can achieve that greatness.
[8] In other words: it is better to prevent war than to wage war.

The Way (Daoism) always creates order. By following the way, you will be in harmony – as nature always stabilizes itself.

Conclusion
Nowadays executives like reading Michael Jordan as much as they do reading Sun Tzu. Leading the way in front of other people requires strong interpersonal skills, a great deal of flexibility and willingness to understand.

I can understand that it can be equally interesting to read books of great athletes, as running a company can be compared with playing in a sports team. Still, I consider Daoism and the principles of Sun Tzu an important way of living your life (in harmony with yourself and your surroundings). As long as there is “Movement Ahead” – like Lao Tzu told us: The way that can be spoken of is not the constant way), harmony will come automatically.

[1] 2001, ‘The ancient art of making money’, The Economist, 5 April
[2] Shirokauer, C. 1989, A Brief History of Chinese and Japanese Civilizations, Harcourt College Publishers
[3] Handel, Michael I. 2001, Masters of War: Classical Strategic Thought, Frank Cass New York
[4] 2001, ‘A sense of history’, The Economist, 27 September
[5] 2002, ‘The return of von Clausewitz’, The Economist, 7 March
[6] Sun Tzu on the art of war: the oldest military treatise in the world, Giles, Lionel, ChEng-Wen Pub
[7] 2002, ‘The return of von Clausewitz’, The Economist, 7 March
[8] Sun Tzu, 1988, The Art of War, Shambala Publications, Inc, Boston

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