If Sun Tzu Had Been CEO


If Sun Tzu had been a CEO, would he have applied the same tactics to his business that he did his armies? Many people have thought so – taking the timeless words of wisdom regarding warfare and applying them to modern business philosophy. As Rick Wartzman, executive director of The Drucker Institute, wrote in Forbes, “Ask businesspeople to peg the writer whose thinking is most clearly reflected in both military and corporate circles, and odds are that you’ll hear the name Sun Tzu.”

Sun Tzu’s most oft-quoted wisdom is, “Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory. Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.”  While it is true that there can be no success without a well-rounded plan that includes both strategy and tactics, Sun Tzu spoke of many other brilliant approaches to strategy that businesses still find applicable today..


Be Prepared, Plan Ahead and Keep Calm

 “Victorious warriors win first and then go to war, while defeated warriors go to war first and then seek to win.”

Not all strategies start from the bottom up – sometimes the first building block you need is the very last. Define what a successful strategic initiative looks like and then decide which steps to take. While building from the top down is a great place to start, it is key to remember execution comes from bottom up engagement.

At the very same, Sun Tzu instills the importance of patience, “Disciplined and calm, to await the appearance of disorder and hubbub amongst the enemy:–this is the art of retaining self-possession.” No matter how meticulously laid out, the rest of the world will not always readily  follow along with pre-laid plans. You must be ready to shift at a moment’s notice. The quickest way to un-do all strategic planning is to doggedly stick to your plan with no regard for outside circumstances, or shift too easily with every change in the wind. If you can keep calm in the midst of a crisis, it will serve you well.


Use Your Team

“The clever combatant looks to the effect of combined energy, and does not require too much from individuals. Hence his ability to pick out the right men and utilize combined energy.”

 A general without an army is just a man. The same can be said of a CEO with no team to execute business plans. Even with a stellar team in place, each individual must be used wisely and to their full potential. Further, a winning team must have more than marching orders. Every team member must be “men imbued with same spirit throughout all its ranks.” In strategic business planning, this means every member must be on the same level. Does your entire team know the end goal – and do they know the steps to reach it?


Success Begets More Success

With so many tips and quotes to take into account, there is one more which must be remembered above all:

 “Opportunities multiply as they are seized.”

The most successful entities, from enterprises and start-ups to leaders and athletes, do not depend on happy accidents. Instead, they have mastered consistently focusing on the essentials. Hard work, dedication, and great communication from the entire team is what leads to winning. From the outside, a big win may be seen as luck, but as Gary Player, one of the greatest golfers in the history of the sport, once said: “The harder you work, the luckier you get.”

Sun Tzu’s The Art of War provides a brilliant philosophy that has proven itself over the millennia in a myriad of industries. Like warfare, business is dynamic, quickly moving and necessitates the effective and efficient use of resources. His timeless teachings can be kept top of mind when waging the metaphorical “wars” we fight everyday.