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Mark R. McNeilly – Sun Tzu and the Art of Business: Six Strategic Principles for Managers

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Sun Tzu’s, The Art of War, has been favorite reading of mine for 30 years. I was pleasantly surprised by the new and improved understanding I obtained of that book from reading this one.
Most military strategists agree that Sun Tzu’s The Art of War (circa 400 B.C.) is essential reading. Since around 1960, many business strategists have felt the same way, through seeing his discussion of war as a metaphor for business competition. Since Sun Tzu did not write about business directly, this has made The Art of War a little less than fully accessible to many business people. This book presents a very successful rewriting of Sun Tzu’s classic to make it more “about business” while keeping a military connection. This book also contains a full translation of The Art of War by Samuel B. Griffith so you can compare this reinterpreted material to the original. I found that comparison especially useful.

The author has developed six principles for managers from Sun Tzu’s concepts:

(1) Capture your market without destroying it or its profitability.

(2) Attack competitors where and when they least expect it and are most vulnerable.

(3) Make the best use of market information to develop advantages.

(4) Move faster than your competitor to create maximum confusion and delay in response.

(5) Pick strategies that will encourage your competitors to respond in ways favorable to you.

(6) Emphasize leadership built upon good character.

The author then goes a step further and proposes six implementation steps for employing these principles. I thought that these steps were especially valuable because some of them expand upon the principles in new ways that make them more business related:

(1) “Prioritize markets and determine competitor focus”

(2) “Develop attacks against competitor’s weaknesses”

(3) “War game and plan for surprises”

(4) “Integrate best attacks to unbalance your competitor”

(5) “Ready your attacks and release them”

(6) “Reinforce success, starve failure”

The book is greatly improved by the many examples in it. The best military ones relate to Operation Desert Storm (discussed in much interesting detail) and the two world wars. The business examples are also good, but not as good as the military ones. The business examples seem to lack a full understanding, and some chapters are noticeably lacking in successful business examples (such as chapter 1). The business examples were best in chapters 2 (Wal-mart, CNN, MTV, and Southwest Airlines), 4 (Southwest Airlines), 5 (Hewlett-Packard’s patents and FedEx’s magazine for office assistants), and 6 (Herb Kelleher at Southwest Airlines). Southwest Airlines is the obvious role model in this book for what a company should be doing.

I thought that chapters 6 (on character-based leadership) and 5 (on shaping your opponent) were outstanding.

The author has some places where his writing is outstanding, as well. For example in chapter 1 he says, “In business, you should follow the philosophy of Go rather than chess. You should seek to control the most market territory with the smallest investment, not to destroy your competitor and your company with endless fighting.” In chapter 6, he shows this same quality in a list of leadership characteristics such as “Build your character, not just your image,” “Lead with actions, not just words,” “Motivate emotionally, not just materially,” and “Share employee’s trials, not just their triumphs.”

I reread Sun Tzu’s original material after reading the reinterpreation, and found that the new examples and analogies in this book added richness to my understanding of that original text. I strongly encourage you to do the same, whether or not you have ever read Sun Tzu before.

After you have finished enjoying this fine book and applying its lessons, I suggest that you consider this same perspective in terms of accomplishing something for a nonprofit organization that you volunteer for. You may be able to accomplish much more good as a result.

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