The Strangeness of Sun Tzu

The name of Sun Tzu will be familiar to just about anyone who has studied business strategy. I know one business school academic who told me that it was the only text you needed to read to pass the course.

But yet, if you read Sun Tzu carefully you discover that he is actually quite subversive. Follow his advice and, even if you are successful, you will seem quite strange to most of your colleagues.

For example:  “to fight and conquer in all your battles is not supreme excellence; supreme excellence consists in breaking the enemy’s resistance without fighting”, or;

“What the ancients called a clever fighter is one who not only wins, but excels in winning with ease. Hence his victories bring him neither reputation for wisdom or credit for courage.”

These come quite early in the book. As we move on, the advice becomes less contentious. For example,  “Do not repeat the tactics which have gained you one victory, but let your methods be regulated by the infinite variety of circumstances.” Very few would disagree with this in principle, even if not everyone observes it in practice.

A careful reading leaves us with an impression of a commander who follows a sound and generally recognised set of strategic precepts but whose principal aim is to avoid the sorts of things – big frontal attacks,  decisive victories, any sort of drama – that win fame and glory.  A commander who, despite their successes, may well appear to be doing very little.

Think back over all the admiring profiles of CEOs that you have read. How many of them were lauded for the battles they did not fight, the competitors they subtly persauded to pack up and go home, or the problems they forestalled?

These people exist – I have been lucky enough to meet a few of them. You probably know some of them too. I’d encourage you to reread Sun Tzu and start to recognise them, and their value.