The Best Management Advice From 'The Art of War'
By Max Nisen
The timeless classic offers surprising management tips still applicable today.
"The Art Of War" is one of the most famous books of all time, said to be written by the legendary Chinese general Sun Tzu around the fifth century B.C.
Some of the advice is pretty narrowly focused and dated (for instance, what generals should do when confronted with different types of terrain). But a lot of it is applicable to leadership and management today despite being thousands of years old.
We've broken out a few of the best pieces of business advice from the timeless classic.
"A wise general makes a point of foraging on the enemy. One cartload of the enemy's provisions is equivalent to twenty of one's own, and likewise a single picul of his provender is equivalent to twenty from one's own store."
This sentiment is pretty much universally applicable to business. Something obtained cheaply or for free is vastly more valuable than drawing from company cash or savings to buy it. In practice, that means both looking for things that are underpriced and having funds available when demand and prices are low.
"When you engage in actual fighting, if victory is long in coming, then men's weapons will grow dull and their ardor will be damped. If you lay siege to a town, you will exhaust your strength."
This is a concept that's repeated several times. When a project or initiative takes too long, people get tired or bored, the competition knows too much about it, it gets outdated, and other companies or people take advantage.
"To see victory only when it is within the ken of the common herd is not the acme of excellence."
A strategy, product, or concept that is obvious has probably already been done. Those that are the best are the ones that succeed without people really noticing. They not only become part of the fabric of people's lives, they're also not as easily replicated.
"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."
Another axiom in the book compares using combined energy to rolling logs or stones. People moving together with momentum go dramatically faster. Depending on individuals alone means they'll wear out, accomplish less, and leave other people behind.
"If you order your men to roll up their buff-coats, and make forced marches without halting day or night, covering double the usual distance at a stretch, doing a hundred LI in order to wrest an advantage, the leaders of all your three divisions will fall into the hands of the enemy."
Here, a "Li" equals 500 meters. Tzu goes on to say that if you do something like this, the strongest men will be in front, the less motivated will fall behind, and a tiny fraction will reach their destination. Pushing incredibly hard to get ahead of a competitor might gain temporary advantage, but it will be very short-lived.