The Sun Tzu Approach in Management
Sun Tzu's ancient Chinese military strategy guide "The Art of War" remains popular reading among professional military officers, political leaders and businesspeople. Sun Tzu's advice is so broadly applicable that there is no single Sun Tzu approach to management. Instead, individual business leaders study Sun Tzu to improve their own unique strategies.
Sun Tzu's classic work is presented as a series of short aphorisms intended to be applied flexibly to a wide variety of possible situations. For instance, Sun Tzu advises leaders and generals that they should first make their own nation impossible to defeat, then simply wait for the enemy to make a fatal error. This has been interpreted by modern businesspeople as an attitude of adaptive opportunism. The company maintains its own stability while waiting and watching, until a sudden error by a competitor presents an opportunity for rapid expansion of market share. Sun Tzu also has much to say about the importance of strategic intelligence.
Sun Tzu's approach to management is similar to what is now known as transformational leadership. According to Sun Tzu, effective leaders inspire their followers by example. By displaying courage, discipline and loyalty to the ruler, the general inspires his soldiers to perform courageously on the battlefield. Sun Tzu advises the leader to treat his followers as if they were his own children. A modern manager following Sun Tzu's principles would show deep concern for the careers and well-being of his subordinates, inspiring them to superior performance.
According to Sun Tzu, excellence on the part of individual soldiers is not so much a matter of temperament as situation. When the army has a tactical advantage, even the most cowardly soldiers feel brave. When the army is at a tactical disadvantage, even the bravest soldiers feel cowardly. To get the best out of subordinates, a manager relying on Sun Tzu's concepts would do everything possible to create an optimal work situation. When employees feel optimistic about the company's prospects, confident in its management and positive about their own future with the company, they can do their best work.
Although Sun Tzu can be a valuable strategic guide for a business leader, it is important to recognize the limitations of this type of advice. Sun Tzu's work was not addressed to modern businesspeople or even their ancient Chinese equivalents, but to generals and warlords during the chaotic Warring States era of Chinese history. Sun Tzu treats warfare as a situation in which normal moral rules are suspended and anything goes. Businesspeople who take this advice too literally could wind up in ethical or even legal trouble because business is not really an anything-goes situation, and moral and legal limitations still apply. According to an article called "Sun Tzu and Wise Management" by Dennis McCann, managers must remain aware of the ways in which warfare and business are not alike if they wish to apply Sun Tzu effectively to modern management and strategy.