Today’s Solutions: November 27, 2021

By Rob Hartgers

From The Optimist Magazine Fall 2015

The Art of War, by Sun Tzu, is 2,500 years old, but it’s still one of the most widely read books on strategy and leadership. What makes this work so relevant after all these centuries? And what can we learn from it?

Henry Kissinger recommended it highly. In The Sopranos, we often saw main character Tony Soprano reading from it. The rappers of Wu-Tang Clan love to quote it. The Art of War, by Chinese general Sun Tzu, was written more than 2,500 years ago and has continued to exert an enormous fascination for readers both in Asia and in the West. 

Indeed, in recent years, interest in this classic work has even been growing. New translations are appearing, which in many cases offer new interpretations. Amazon currently offers 4,000 titles related to this work. This includes an edition for the very youngest (“You can now take your child on a journey with Sun Tzu”), many illustrated and luxury editions, as well as curiosities such as The Art of War for Zombies and The Art of War for Lovers. There is even a special golfers’ edition, subtitled How the Timeless Strategies of Sun-Tzu Can Transform Your Game.”

Businesspeople love to quote Sun Tzu. The wise words of the Chinese strategist often appear in LinkedIn profiles and digital e-mail signatures. Hjalmar Didrikson, the Swedish owner of an investment firm in Stockholm, even created an iPhone app (Sun Tzu’s the Art of Business) that generates quotes through a shuffle function. Just shake your telephone and a new warmongering quote pops up—handy if you’re in a meeting and want to impress the others with some Chinese wisdom. Didrikson says it’s a hobby project: “I’m fascinated by Sun Tzu. Whenever I read an appropriate quote by him, I mail it to colleagues. I’ve been doing it for years. The app is a way for me to share this with more people.”

The Art of War is a timeless classic. Credit this to the subject matter. Sun Tzu wrote about war, but at a deeper level, the text deals with every form of conflict you’re likely to deal with as a human. He writes about the self-knowledge that is necessary for a warrior. About handling setbacks. About making an inventory of your strong and weak points. It is one of the few books that is read at the military academy as well as at the yoga school.

It took thousands of years for this popular text to take hold in the West. At the end of the 18th century, The Art of War, which is the only surviving text by the warlord, was translated into French, and it took until 1910 for the first English translation to appear. Hollywood was instrumental in bringing this little booklet (at 6,000 words, it’s more a pamphlet than a book) to a larger audience. In 1987, in Oliver Stone’s movie Wall Street, the ruthless trader Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas, in an iconic role) advises his protégé Bud Fox (Charlie Sheen) to, above all, read Sun Tzu. Not only Fox but a lot of people in the audience took this advice to heart. It was the beginning of a craze, especially in the business world, that hasn’t run its course yet.

It is a book that you can read again and again, says Foo Check Teck, an engineering professor at Nanyang Technological University, in Singapore. “There are always more layers to discover.” The Chinese-Singaporean Foo, an internationally renowned expert on the famous general, should know: he’s completed a new translation of The Art of War that will be appearing later this year.

Foo also wrote a book in which he translates the advice of Sun Tzu to the corporate world of today. He advises entrepreneurs and managers to sharpen their “strategic wits.” Business is always about battle and competition. Even in seemingly unimportant meetings, it behooves businesspeople to be aware of this, in the same way that Sun Tzu always had his guard up.

An interview with Foo is a wondrous experience. It’s not every day that the names of conqueror Genghis Khan, soccer hero Johan Cruijff, Nazi general Erwin Rommel, revolutionary Mao Zedong and militant Shiite movement Hezbollah all come up in conversation. For Foo, all roads lead back to Sun Tzu. He can explain any competitive situation in terms of The Art of War.

“You can use Sun Tzu’s writings to explain why one party won and the other party lost,” says Foo. “Not only in war situations, but also in corporate competition or in sports. Do you know why Brazil lost to Germany in the last World Cup semifinal? Why the Americans couldn’t win the Vietnam War? Or why Chinese tech company Huawei will beat the American Cisco in the long run? Because parties who start repeating themselves and following operational doctrines will always lose. If you follow a standard procedure that you adhere to strictly, the moment will come that your opponent outsmarts you.”

Although Sun Tzu is avidly quoted in the West, the knowledge of his philosophy is actually quite shallow, Foo has found. One reason is that the existing translations are actually “watered down” representations of the original text. “The text is often cryptic and metaphorical,” says Foo. “You need to know the culture of the time when Sun Tzu lived to interpret the meaning of his words correctly.”

In China they don’t need to even read The Art of War anymore, according to Foo, because Sun Tzu’s ideas have become so deeply ingrained in the national culture and psyche. The proof of this theory, in Foo’s opinion, can often be found in the strategies of Chinese CEOs, which tend to be considerably more long-term than those of their Western counterparts. And at the same time they are more flexible. Because Sun Tzu teaches that, too. “According to him, strategy is shapeless, like water. You need to continuously adapt to the prevailing circumstances.”

Foo says that another reason Sun Tzu is so highly valued in the business world is because military strategy and economy are closely intertwined in The Art of War. “The book is very much aimed at a sensible use of money and resources. Sun Tzu writes that before embarking on waging war, you have to review your resources. He also says that, where possible, you must recycle your resources. So he was even into sustainability.”

Becky Sheetz-Runkle got to know The Art of War through her sport. The Washington, D.C.–based author and speaker is a fanatic practitioner of Eastern martial arts and hoped that this strategist from Chinese antiquity could teach her how to win. She was surprised by his way of thinking. “Our Western views on strategy are, to my mind, very male and macho,” she says. “All very geared towards frontal attacks, and the biggest and strongest wins. Sun Tzu teaches that it is better to think creatively and to try to avoid frontal confrontations.

So she applied this newfound wisdom to her sport. She was practicing karate, a discipline strongly geared toward power and direct confrontations. “No matter how hard I trained and how many vitamins I took, I always lost to bigger and stronger opponents, even if they were technically inferior to me,” Sheetz-Runkle says. So she switched to jiujitsu, where technique is far more important. “You’re supposed to use the power of your opponent to your own advantage and mislead him as much as possible,” she says. Those are principles, she says, straight out of The Art of War: use a superior strategy, know your enemy, know your own strengths and know the environment.

Sheetz-Runkle is also applying the wisdom of the Chinese strategist to a wider field than sports. She is now making use of it in business, too—for example, when she started a communications agency in Washington and had to compete with the large and well-established agencies. “Sun Tzu says a smaller and less-equipped army is perfectly capable of defeating a superior opponent,” she points out. “One very important lesson is that you need to engage in battle only when you are sure you will win. In all other cases it is better to walk away.”

Sheetz-Runkle is a co-founder of Sun Tzu Strategies, which provides strategic advice to other companies. She also has written two books inspired by Sun Tzu: The Art of War for Small Business and Sun Tzu for Women. Women? Yes, she explains, because women often wrongly think it’s a typical man’s book. “I once asked a highly successful female entrepreneur if she would write a recommendation for my book. She answered that she thought the metaphor of war for doing business seemed like a bad idea to her and entirely unsuitable for the way women do business and act as leaders.”

According to Sheetz-Runkle, that’s a huge misunderstanding. “Despite its title, The Art of War is actually more about how to prevent conflicts. It actually is about the art of competition. I show women how to apply the lessons of Sun Tzu to their own career. Sun Tzu writes: ‘He who knows himself will be victorious.’ Women have some qualities that are superior to men’s qualities—like intuition, the ability to work together and communication skills—but they don’t make enough use of them. They think they should adapt to the men in their environment. Sun Tzu teaches that that is unwise.”

The Western fascination with Sun Tzu has not gone unnoticed in China. In his birthplace, Huimin, in the eastern province of Shandong, an historical amusement park has been built, where tourists can feast their eyes on weapons from the era of Sun Tzu, reconstructed palaces and, of course, statues of the great man himself. At state visits, Chinese leaders are wont to give deluxe editions of The Art of War to other world leaders. The gift can be a subtle way of criticizing the policies of other nations, as when president Hu Jintao gave George W. Bush a copy of the Chinese classic. The context—Bush was at that moment wrestling with hopelessly stagnant campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan—made the gift all the more topical.

According to Foo Check Teck, the Chinese nowadays are prouder of Sun Tzu than ever before. “After China opened up to the rest of the world a bit more, starting in the 1970s, many Chinese were very interested to learn more about Western strategy expertise. Now economic growth is coming to a standstill in large parts of the Western world, and the interest is returning for their own classical sources.”

Sheetz-Runkle thinks that the mysticism around Sun Tzu contributes to his appeal to Western readers. “In American culture, it’s always all about the next big thing. The wisdom of Sun Tzu, which has stood the test of centuries, is practically the opposite. Sun Tzu’s thinking is Eastern but also universally applicable. That, I think, is his great power. Sun Tzu has advice to offer for any moment, for all stages of our life.” 

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