Military Conflict and Commercial Competition are NOT Equivalent Disciplines

Art of War > Forum Log in

Military Conflict and Commercial Competition are NOT Equivalent Disciplines
Tom Wilson, HR Consultant, United States

There is an episode that is always ignored by business commentators:
A prince summoned Sun Tzu to instruct him on the art of war. Sun Tzu agreed on condition that the prince do exactly what he ordered. The prince agreed.
"Order your concubines into 3 groups". The prince complied.
"Order one from each group to lead their group". The prince complied.
"Order the leaders to order their groups to turn to the left". The prince complied, but the concubines, who were favorites of the prince, wiggled delightfully and caused their groups to giggle and laugh with mirth.
"Kill them and replace them with leaders who will obey instantly to your command". "But they are my favorites..." complained the prince.
"Kill them or I shall leave you to instruct yourself on the art of war".
In warfare, it is kind to be cruel and cruel to be kind. Business and warfare are alike only in the need of business leaders to see themselves as great warriors.

Haven't we All Known Businessmen Who Have Fired Employees Who do not Follow Instructions?
lee tilson, Other, USA
Haven't we all known businessmen who have fired employees who do not follow instructions?
Isn't firing in the business context similar to killing in the military context?

Thank You for Adding Perspective
Shawn R. Frost, Strategy Consultant, United States
Tom, It's unfortunate that you've latched on to a story that doesn't even appear in the Art of War to inform your decision about the validity of a text that has proven itself over 2600 years of "beta testing".
One key element you've left out, aside from the questionable origin of this story, is that Sun Tzu first allegedly said: "I've given the instructions once. It is up to the leader to clearly communicate his directions to his followers. This must have been my error. The command was... Now try again." after they failed to perform he realized it wasn't an ability issue and then set about addressing the other key factor of change: motivation.
Lee Tilson makes an excellent point insofar as it is exceedingly cruel to keep someone in a role in which they are not capable or motivated to succeed.
Tom, I hope you'll stay tuned to this SIG as we will be deeply exploring the modern benefits hidden in the Bing Fa, and would appreciate your input.

Yes, the Episode Does Happen..
Tom Wilson, HR Consultant, United States
@Shawn R. Frost: ... as you point out, Sun Tzu makes the point that the instructions may have not been clearly made by the commander. There is a legend that Napoleon kept an idiot on his staff and if the idiot understood his order, then his Marshalls probably would.
Sun Tzu then repeats the order and the leading concubines proceed to laugh and twitter, at which point, Sun Tzu makes the point that, if the instructions are clear and the subordinate persists in ignoring them, the subordinate needs to be removed and orders the execution of the lead concubines. See youtube video.
A point that Sun Tzu is making that, no matter what orders are given, blood will be shed and the ruler must accept the cost of battle before he engages in it or he will be like George McClellan: no matter how charismatic he might be as a leader, as a commander he will be insufficient.
As the video says, this is a key principle of Sun Tzu's teaching.

Beyond the Video
Shawn R. Frost, Strategy Consultant, United States
I've enjoyed that movie as well, but there is MUCH more to Sun Tzu's Bing Fa. The opening scene with the concubines doesn't come from the Bin Fa, it comes from "Records of the Grand Historian" which was written around 450 years after Sun Tzu's death. Many scholars doubt its authenticity.
Beyond this film, what is your exposure to the Bing Fa? Have you read the Art of War? It has MANY surprising revelations. The first is that there is very little therein contained which is about the conduct or tactics of warfare. With the exception of the chapter on "using fire" (12), it is a treatise on competitive systems.
Your point on the leader accepting that direct competition has costs is astute. ST spends an entire chapter (2) on the economic realities of direct action. He also warns against caring too much for your people, because then your competitors can poach them. He does, however, list being caring as a key leadership trait.
The Art of War is very nuanced. I hope you'll explore it.

Beyond Sun Tzu and the Ego of the Ruler
Tom Wilson, HR Consultant, United States
@Shawn R. Frost: I am an Army brat. I read Sun Tzu in 1963 when my dad was a KMAG advisor to the ROC Army. I was reading it about the time the Zippo monk lit himself up in Saigon. I also read Marx, Caesar, Lawrence, elements of Mao and a bunch of Special Forces manuals, from which I encountered Sun Tzu. I redesigned my off-hand and kneeling rifle position from reading Soviet reports of their successes.
My objection to introducing Sun Tzu to corporate executives without military experience is that it tends to appeal to their narcissism and egoism, which is never far beneath the surface.
Personally, I count Kurt Lewin as a far more reliable mentor. His Kriegslandschaft is a psychological portrait of the infantry field of play, but the life-space of his field theory accommodates Sun Tzu. The concubine parable is what I remember most from Sun Tzu and, as I say, defines the contours of the enterprise.

Excellent Points About the Leader's Faults
Shawn R. Frost, Strategy Consultant, United States
As someone who makes his living teaching this to leaders and would-be leaders, I couldn't agree with you more. The first conversation we have centers around your concern, because it is a concern for us too. We always make it clear that we aren't going to come in and teach them how to attack and "crush" their opponents. We don't do that. True to the advice of Sun Tzu, the point of warfare (direct competition) is to Make Victory Pay (hence our firm being named MVP strategy). Fighting has costs. Being a narcissist has costs. Sun Tzu warns that if a competitor has a delicate sense of honor, he is weak because you can embarrass him. The same is true of CEO's or Execs who always need to be right at the expense of others.
Thanks for making such excellent points that echo Sun Tzu's work. Some execs hold but there will always be those who use it egotistically. Strategy is values neutral. The distinction between fighter and warrior is as marked as between manager and leader. Excellent points!

FIrst Earth Battlion
Tom Wilson, HR Consultant, United States
@Shawn R. Frost: I am sure you have encountered this group from the Army's reforms of the 70's. They explored Sun Tzu widely and there are still members of that group that can be found at The Meta Network, TMN dot com, which was the home web community of Ltc Frank Burns, the guy who coined the phrase Be All You Can Be. I believe you are aligned with that philosophy in the best sense of the word
For myself, Gen Gordon Sullivan's HOPE IS NOT A METHOD is at the leading edge of 5th Wave High Performance, but it is not available to most corporate executives because their basic leadership model is insufficient and the organizations they represent have not adopted the basic transformation the Army undertook in 1947. I was an instructor in the Ranger department and the Harvard default model does not produce the leadership this primary school offers (the USMC represents a similar pedigree). Continue to march.


    Do you wish to study further? You can learn more from the summary, forum, discussions, lessons, courses, training, instructions, expert tips, best practices and education sources. Register.  

Special Interest Group Leader
Shawn R. Frost
Strategy Consultant

More on Art of War
Best Practices

Expert Tips


About 12manage | Advertising | Link to us | Privacy | Terms of Service
Copyright 2016 12manage - The Executive Fast Track. V14.1 - Last updated: 26-10-2016. All names tm by their owners.