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Sunday, 11 February 2018

Want Some 2,500 Year Old Leadership Advice? Read The Art of War!

I was reminded recently of the classic book, The Art of War, by the Chinese military strategist of the time,Sun Tzu (5th century BCE) and I looked up a copy that had lain dormant and unread on my bookshelf for many years.

I do not in any way equate running a business with warfare which is an abhorrent way for countries to resolve (or not) any difference of opinion usually to the detriment of the people involved especially the innocents.

However some of the strictures that Sun Tzu espouses have relevance today in the matter of leadership.  He has strong views on this subject which he discusses under the generic heading of The Commander.

In the prologue to the book he writes thus:

“The Commander stands for the virtues of wisdom, sincerity, benevolence, courage and strictness”.

and it is worthwhile examining these virtues in the light of accepted norms of leadership behaviour and attitude at the present day.

Wisdom is one of those intangible virtues difficult to define and even more difficult to recognise. The old concept of wisdom equating to age is nonsense.  We have all met many stupid old people (some not so old too) and very wise young ones that give a lie to the maxim.

Wisdom can be defined as “having experience, knowledge and good judgement and the ability to express it to others”.

One of our great US speakers in Vistage is Herb Meyer, formerly Special Counsel at the CIA. Herb says that there is a flow chart starting with data and progressing through information, knowledge, intelligence and wisdom, the latter being the culmination of the system.

The crucial aspect however is the ability to transmit that wisdom cogently and with clarity to all those involved and should be one of the primary functions of leadership.

Remember that wonderful gag of George Burns?  He said that the secret of success in show business is sincerity and once you can fake that you’ve got it made.

Cynical yes, but with a grain of truth.  One of the great abilities of any leader is to be able to put a point over so that he/she is believed and that demands an outward display of sincerity.  Please note: it only works when eventually the truth is out and the sincerity proven.

Benevolence was at one time a non-starter for many leaders of businesses.  They ruled with an iron discipline and no variation from the rules was permitted.  That form of authoritarianism is way off the beam these days and those businesses where a benevolent attitude is instilled are the more likely to be successful and crucially, keep their good people.

Courage is, of course, the ability to take risks and that needs to be modified to “considered risks”.  If a leader finds it difficult to take risks then the outcome is likely to be a stagnant business.  The courage needed can be considerable at times and a sensible attitude towards backing-up evidence is needed.  I recall a Chief Operating Officer in a business who was so risk averse that he would make no decision until he had what he considered to be sufficient back-up evidence.  Needless to say he never made a decision.

Strictness of course harks back to the past when the leader would always be expected to be strict.  Perhaps the nearest we come to that these days is a culture of self discipline engendered and encouraged throughout the organisation.

All in all The Art of War has many really valuable lessons for us in business provided of course we can manage to implement them without killing anybody.

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