Lessons from Sun Tzu’s Art of War for Business Leadership

Published on: August 10, 2012
One of my favorite books is Sun Tzu’s Art of War. I have read it several times and is one of my top 5 favorite books. Although the teachings are very old (6th century BC), there is much that can be applied to the modern day hyper-competitive business environment. Here are some of the lessons I have learned:
  • An individual contribution (or lack of it) can make the difference between a startup growing or becoming another fire sale. Everyone must be on deck and stand in the heat of the kitchen; if they can’t – show them the door. Even startups flush with cash can’t afford slackers.
  • If directions are not being followed, management is failing to communicate. Clear messages don’t get misinterpreted.
  • My father ran some large organizations with great success and I learned one big lesson from him: there is no gray zone in leadership. People follow you because they love you or because they fear you. The first one works much better, but you should not be afraid to chop some proverbial heads of those who endanger your company. You must be capable of both styles.
  • Never engage your competitor head-on! It is good for your ego, if you win, but it is too costly in resources. It is about running a “territory game” (market share) and not about taking down your competition. Since it is the customer who pays your bills, you must “outplease” your competitors’ customers and turn them into yours. Focusing on pushing your competitor out of business does nothing to increase your bottom line.
  • It is unlikely you will win with a team full of mercenaries (freelancers). Their loyalty is not to you. Build a strong team of “soldiers” with ferocious loyalty, and the drive for a common cause, and sense of belonging.
  • Preparation trumps everything. There is no excuse for not figuring out everything in your control before taking huge steps. Focus on customer development. Many of us think our idea is the hottest thing in the world, but if customer is not willing to pay for it, than our idea is worthless. Do small scale pilots, work with customers to build your product/service, and build a solid foundation to scale.
  • Don’t toss good money after bad. If you fail small, you live to fight another day.
  • Rash, cocky, ego-driven behavior reaps some of the most bitter outcomes. Ego does not provide you with the guts to go against big challenges, it actually clouds your vision. Don’t ever stop thinking with your wallet and your brain.
  • Building visions of grandeur from the stories of the very few who got lucky and made it is dangerous. Many more have “perished” on the way to success. Focus on learning how to avoid the pitfalls that broke the backs of entrepreneurs before you.

Photo credit: vlasta2