Sun Tzu wrote about modern capitalism 2,500 years ago...


Let me tell you why I think Sun Tzu’s 13 Chapters are so powerful…

It’s a great strategy guide when you replace ‘War’ with ‘Business’ and ‘Enemy’ with ‘Client’. And it’s told me all sorts about what sale to make, what environment to make it in and how to negotiate with people (including when NOT to).

The ‘13 Chapters’ (as they are colloquially known) often crop up in business training, sales and other areas of leadership. There have been a number of translations over time, however the best ones always link Sun Tzu’s words from 500 BC to modern day events or situations. And they are surprisingly accurate in describing how modern tactics and strategies play out in all walks of life.

But this is the real cleverness in Sun Tzu’s words…

I was sent a link from one of my regular subscriptions about two people who decided they knew enough to write a book about Leadership. They wrote about the Bases of Power.

The Bases of Power

French and Raven described 5 types of power, sometimes referred to as the 5 bases of social power. Each is described briefly below and then in more detail later.

1. Coercive: here power comes from one’s ability to punish someone else for noncompliance, for example, through fear of losing their job or their annual bonus.

2. Reward: here power comes from one’s ability to issue rewards, for example, through a bonus or allowing time off in lieu.

3. Legitimate: here power comes from a person’s formal right to issue directives or commands because of their position in the organization, for example, the CEO has the right to dictate the strategy.

4. Expert: here power comes from one’s experience or knowledge, for example, a senior surgeon displays the expert knowledge for subordinates to trust them.

5. Referent: here power comes from being trusted or respected, for example, the boss who treats everyone fairly and with respect.

They sounded familiar. So I just scrolled to the first chapter in the Art of War, and settled on a passage which talks about The Commander (or general, or leader). Sun Tzu said:

“The Commander stands for the virtues of wisdom, sincerity, benevolence, courage and strictness.” In ancient China, these ‘virtues’ were synonymous with respectable, high-born people in powerful roles. The five cardinal virtues of the Chinese are:

Humanity or Benevolence — i.e. one that may be considerate to their citizens or soldiers and reward appropriately;

Uprightness of mind (strictness) — someone who values exact conformity to the rules must also be able to punish those who fail to comply

Self-respect, self-control, or ‘proper feeling’ (courage) — i.e. that you might feel for a trusted or respected individual;

Wisdom — referring to one’s experience or knowledge;

Sincerity or good faith — from a legitimate seat of power, here the general is seen to distribute honest commands to which he expects to be obeyed without question.

And that was written 2,500 years before French and Raven.

There is a striking similarity in the virtues of the ancient Chinese and those bases of power French and Raven discovered by observing modern day business and leadership. What’s important to note is that there is an ever-present constant in these two eras — that is, the predictability of human interaction and the organisation of hierarchies. Thus allowing Sun Tzu to eloquently predict the behaviour of modern organisations millennia before they existed.

Within the 13 Chapters there are countless examples of how to live well and succeed — read Chapter 8 “Variation of Tactics” and you’ll understand better what bad habits to avoid in life; (Sun Tzu wrote: there are roads which must not be followed… positions which must not be contested — think “better to stand down until I am better equipped to deal with this situation”).

Planning and understanding your relative strengths and weaknesses, including those of your “enemy” (or friend, family member member/loved one) can be improved 10-fold by absorbing the words in Chapter 6 “Weak Points and Strong”.

Even the art of negotiation is covered (read Chapter 10 “Terrain” and you’ll understand how best to argue your case and come out on top in almost every situation).

Best of all, the Art of War can be digested in an hour or two. So remember its wisdom, as it will be one you want to revisit when you next find yourself needing some deep self-discipline in managing your next steps, in your career, personal relationships and life.

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