Ideas

Lessons from The Art of War: How to bring misfortune to your team

Over 2000 years ago Sun Tzu wrote the classic text The Art of War, a very well known treatise on military strategy.

Today in a different age and different world environment, we can still learn and apply fascinating principles from this ancient text. In this article I will expand on only one small section of this book applying it to management & leadership within a business context.

How a ruler brings misfortune upon his army

From the text:

“There are three ways in which a ruler can bring misfortune upon his army:–

(1) By commanding the army to advance or to retreat, being ignorant of the fact that it cannot obey. This is called hobbling the army.

(2) By attempting to govern an army in the same way as he administers a kingdom, being ignorant of the conditions which obtain in an army. This causes restlessness in the soldier’s minds.

(3) By employing the officers of his army without discrimination, through ignorance of the military principle of adaptation to circumstances. This shakes the confidence of the soldiers.”

Way #1: Misunderstanding of capabilities

“(1) By commanding the army to advance or to retreat, being ignorant of the fact that it cannot obey. This is called hobbling the army.”

If a manager asks staff to do something they’re not capable of doing, he/she is ignorant of “the fact that (they) cannot obey”. Sun Tzu does not blame the army for being incapable but the general for being ignorant.

If you as a manager are not highly familiar with what is possible and what is not, you’ll waste a lot of time sending out instructions that will ultimately come to naught. In the best circumstances, your people will push back on you and tell you why it’s not possible (be sure to listen open-mindedly!). However, due to a kind of “power differential” that exists between managers and staff, staff may not feel comfortable speaking up/challenging/objecting to the manager and thus will withhold their opinions on what is possible. In those circumstances, a manager may issue instructions, with staff saying “yes”, but nothing happening anyway because they’re not capable of doing those things (thus, leading to failure).

Way #2: Misunderstanding of environment

(2) By attempting to govern an army in the same way as he administers a kingdom, being ignorant of the conditions which obtain in an army. This causes restlessness in the soldier’s minds.

Again another possibility of the general being ignorant. In this case administering the army with the wrong methodology.

In modern business contexts, this is like a manager/leader with prior leadership experience now leading a team in a field he/she is not familiar with. Many of their intuitions about how things are done successfully may fall short. I love the final sentence of this “This causes restlessness in the soldier’s minds.” – what a deep great way to articulate it! Basically if a leader is managing a team in a field they’re not extremely familiar with, the soldiers (staff) will lose respect for the manager.

Way #3: Misunderstanding/disrespect of competence

(3) By employing the officers of his army without discrimination, through ignorance of the military principle of adaptation to circumstances. This shakes the confidence of the soldiers.

In modern business contexts, this is like a CEO appointing managers “without discrimination” (in other words, creating poor leadership by not being competent enough with the appointment criteria). “This shakes the confidence of the soldiers”, if the CEO appoints poor middle managers, the confidence of the staff will be shaken in the entire leadership.

Conclusion

All three of these ways share a common theme: poor decision making born of ignorance.

The Art of War is a great read, highly recommended.

Shawn 29/03/2020

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