Lessons in leadership from an ancient text on war

Lessons in leadership from an ancient text on war

Leadership & Management

Jeevika Kher

Jeevika Kher

131 week ago — 6 min read

Two decades ago when all I could read was literature and famous fiction writers, I chanced upon the book ‘The Art of War’ by Sun Tzu. There was nothing in particular enchanting about the pick of that day. I forced myself to read this book. It was just a casual read for me as all I could think while picking it up was that I would be able to relate to a soldier’s thought process. That remains a challenge for me till date. 


Even though a 50-pager, it was still far from being riveting and unputdownable book for me at that time. It was a 2,500-year-old text, heavy on descriptions of chariots and mercenaries totally soaked and cloaked in Confucian mysticism. This was at that time. With my journey as a training consultant, I see the same book laden with lessons for the modern business environment.


Today’s business world is awash in change – unstable, often erratic, and always daunting. Leaders struggle to cover these glaring yawning gaps.  These challenges faced by them are critical for business survival, competitive advantage and future success. The age old theories of the survival of the fittest are challenged and rubbished. This economic climate is plagued with financial woes, customer vehemence and the employees’ strife. It becomes imperative for organisations to find solutions that promote sustainability.

And yes, it is 'The Art of War' which encapsulates the aphorisms and truism written ages ago but still holds relevance for the present era. It has taken us aeons to understand the lessons he wanted us to follow. Business has become a battlefield. The soldiers practice more than they fight. The corporate soldiers fight more than they practice. Time to ponder and time to act. It is also time to move away from the proverbial workman blaming his tools.


Sun Tzu, though a warrior-sage, wrote about the importance of strategy and competition which is still extremely applicable today whether you’re referring to business or military. The knowledge of oneself and the enemy is the cornerstone of strength and those who succeed are those who are prepared and wise enough not to fight. He refers to an emergent world from a series of strategic changes and shocks. Thus he wrote, “Being victorious a hundred times in a hundred battles is not the most excellent approach. Causing the enemy to submit without battle is the most excellent approach.”


Sun Tzu has challenged the mundane way of competing in this present world. We usually go by being wary of the strengths of our competition. He argues that you should avoid your competitor’s strength, and attack their weakness. “An army may be likened to water, for just as flowing water avoids the heights and hastens to the lowlands, so an army avoids strength and strikes weakness.”     


The very run of the mill approach of leading companies to launch head-on, direct attacks against their competitor’s strongest point has been challenged. This strategy usually leads to battles of attrition, which end up being very costly for everyone involved. The focus should be on the competition’s weakness, which maximises your gains while minimising the use of resources.


“Know the enemy and know yourself; in a hundred battles you will never be in peril.”


It does require an effort to find and exploit the competitor’s weakness. We need to get deep into their strategy, capabilities, thoughts and desires. Having a good feel of the terrain and their lay of the land along with masking your plans can definitely lead us way ahead of others. The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting. Supreme excellence consists of breaking the enemy’s resistance without fighting.


“The general who wins the battle makes many calculations in his temple before the battle is fought. The general who loses makes but few calculations beforehand.”


Proper preparations prevent poor performance. Those who prepare in advance by creating well founded plans are more likely to be successful. Time for all is same. So investing time in proper planning is important. The planning should involve exploring a variety of tactical combinations based on what has worked in the past for you, others in your industry, or even other companies in different industries.


Today, while taking many corporate workshops it takes a smidgen of my effort to quote this Chinese General who taught us a lesson far wider in horizon than those from modern writers. His quasi-mystical aphorisms can leave a modern reader scratching his head. However, at the heart of Sun Tzu’s philosophies are strategies for effective and efficient conflict resolution useful to all who wish to gain an edge over their opposition.


To explore business opportunities, link with me by clicking on the 'Connect' button on my eBiz Card.  


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